game design concepts

game design concepts
game design concepts:
an experiment in game design and teaching
by Ian Schreiber
What is this book?
This book is an experiment in game design and pedagogy.
During Summer 2009, a series of lectures, course notes, readings, and challenges were posted to this blog on the subject of
game design.
This book is a course in game design (specifically, non-digital
systems design).
Level 0:
What Is Game Design Concepts?
Originally posted March 31, 2009 and April 21, 2009
y name is Ian Schreiber. I’ve been working
in the video game industry since the turn of
the millenium, first as a programmer and then as a
game designer. I’ve taught college classes in game
design since Fall 2006. For any other information,
you can Google me.
Tuition: none. This class is open to all.
Prerequisites: none. It is my intention to make this course
accessible to all levels of experience, while providing
useful additional resources for those who are advanced.
Schedule: Take it at your own pace; when originally
posted, there were two articles a week posted over the
course of 9 weeks.
Audience: anyone with an interest in game design. This
includes students who are interested in game design;
faculty who teach courses in game design and would like
to compare course material; game developers with an
interest in design or a desire to see an example of what
students are being taught these days; or relatives of game
designers who are curious about what these people do all
Course Description
This course provides students with a theoretical and conceptual understanding of the field of game design, along with
practical exposure to the process of creating a game. Topics
covered include iteration, rapid prototyping, mechanics, dynamics, flow theory, the nature of fun, game balance, and user
interface design. Primary focus is on non-digital games.
Course Objectives
In this class, we will discuss games and game design. We will
discover what the components of games are, and what parts
of games are influenced by their design. We will learn several
ways to approach the design of a game, and processes and best
practices for prototyping, playtesting and balancing a game
after it has been designed.
Student Learning Outcomes
By the end of this course, you will be familiar with the (relatively small) body of work that is accepted in the game industry as the theoretical foundation of game design. You will
also be comfortable enough in processes to start designing
your own games, as well as critically analyzing other people’s
Why are you doing this?
I have many motivations for starting this project, some selfish
and some altrusitic. Best to be up front about it:
Game design is my passion, and I love to share it with
anyone and everyone.
I have taught some classes in a traditional
classroom and others online, and I want to
experiment with alternate methods of teaching.
By exposing my course content and viewing
the comments and discussions, I can improve
the course when I teach it for money.
It is a career move. If this course is successful, it gives
me greater exposure in my field and promotes my name
as a brand.
Is this really, totally, 100% free?
The book is free. There are some minor costs:
There is a required textbook. It retails for under $25 US.
Part of the course will involve the creation
of a fully realized non-digital project, so you
may need to purchase materials. These usually
range from $25 to $50, depending on the game.
It’s still cheaper than college tuition.
This course has one required text, and two recommended texts
that will be referenced in several places and provide good
“next steps” after the summer course ends.
Required Text
Challenges for Game Designers by Brathwaite & Schreiber.
This book covers a lot of basic information on both practical
and theoretical game design, and we will be using it heavily,
supplemented with some readings from other online sources.
Yes, I am one of the authors. The reason Brenda and I wrote
this book was because we wanted a text to use in our classes,
and nothing like it existed at the time… so we made our own.
Recommended Texts
Understanding Comcs: The Invisible Art by McCloud. While
this book claims to be about comics, many of the lessons within can be applied to game design and other forms of art. It also
happens to be a comic book itself, and fun to read.
A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Koster. This book shows
the similarities between game design and education, with a
good discussion of the concept of Flow. Half text and half
cartoons, this short book flows nicely and can be read in an
afternoon or two.
The following syllabus is a reprinting of the syllabus as it appeared on the original site during the course. It is reprinted
here to give you an idea of the pacing of the original course,
in addition to acting as a summary of the upcoming course.
Original Date Topics Covered
M 6/29
Th 7/2
M 7/6
Th 7/9
Overview of games and design
Critical vocabulary: what is a game?
Iteration and rapid prototyping.
Overview of the game design process
M 7/13
Th 7/16
M 7/20
Th 7/23
M 7/27
Th 7/30
M 8/3
M 8/10
Formal elements of games
Design Project: player testing
Design Project: Blindtesting
Design Project: balancing
Differences between digital and nondigital UI
Blindtesting techniques
Game balance techniques
Th 8/27
M 8/31
Design Project: final materials and
Critical analysis of design projects
Next steps
Games and art
Decision-making, types of decisions
Flow theory
Kinds of fun
Dramatic elements in games
Game design process in detail
Intro to the Design Project for this
Solo testing techniques
Design Project: solo testing
Design Project: designer testing
Player testing techniques
Special dynamics: feedback loops,
emergence and intentionality
Nonlinear storytelling
Th 8/20
Mechanics and dynamics
M 8/17
M 8/24
Player types
Th 8/13
Idea generation, brainstorming, and
paper prototyping
Th 8/6
What is game design?
Original Date Topics Covered
Designer testing techniques, critical
Th 9/3
User Interface design
Design Project:
Course summary
Where can I get more information?
You can send an email to [email protected]
asking for more information.
Course Overview
Most fields of study have been around for thousands of years.
Game design has been studied for not much more than ten. We
do not have a vast body of work to draw upon, compared to
those in most other arts and sciences.
Level 1:
Overview / What is a Game?
Originally posted June 29, 2009
elcome to Game Design Concepts! I am
Ian Schreiber, and I will be your guide
through this whole experiment. I’ve heard a lot
of excitement throughout all of the registration
process these last few months, and be assured
that I am just as excited (and intimidated) at this
whole process as anyone else. So let me say that I
appreciate your time, and will do my best to make
the time you spend on this worthwhile.
On the other hand, we are lucky. Within the past few years, we
have finally reached what I see as a critical mass of conceptual
writing, formal analysis, and theoretical and practical understanding to be able to fill a college curriculum… or at least, in
this case, a ten-week course.
Okay, that isn’t entirely fair. There is actually a huge body of
material in the field of game design, and many books (with
more being released at an alarming rate). But the vast majority of it is either useless, or it is such dense reading that no
one in the field bothers to read it. The readings we’ll have in
this course are those that have, for whatever reason, pervaded
the industry; many professional designers are already familiar
with them.
This course will be divided, roughly, into two parts. The first
half of the course will focus on the theories and concepts of
game design. We will learn what a game is, how to break the
concept of a game down into its component parts, and what
makes one game better or worse than another. In the second
half of the course, the main focus is the practical aspect of
how to create a good game out of nothing, and the processes
that are involved in creating your own games. Throughout all
of the course, there will be a number of opportunities to make
your own games (all non-digital, no computer programming
required), so that you can see how the theory actually works
in practice.
What is a game?
Those of you who have read a little into the Challenges text
may think this is obvious. My preferred definition is a play
activity with rules that involves conflict. But the question
“what is a game?” is actually more complicated than that:
For one thing, that’s my definition. Sure, it was adopted by
the IGDA Education SIG (mostly because no one argued
with me about it). There are many other definitions that
disagree with mine. Many of those other definitions were
proposed by people with more game design experience
than me. So, you can’t take this definition (or anything
else) for granted, just because Ian Says So.
For another, that definition tells us nothing about how to
design games, so we’ll be talking about what a game is
in terms of its component parts: rules, resources, actions,
story, and so on. I call these things “formal elements” of
games, for reasons that will be discussed later.
Also, it’s important to make distinctions between different
games. Consider the game of Three to Fifteen. Most of you
have probably never heard of or played this game. It has a
very simple set of rules:
Players: 2
Objective: to collect a set of exactly three numbers that
add up to 15.
Setup: start by writing the numbers 1 through 9 on a sheet
of paper. Choose a player to go first.
Progression of Play: on your turn, choose a number that
has not been chosen by either player. You now control
that number. Cross it off the list of numbers, and write
the number on your side of the paper to show that it is
now yours.
»» Resolution: if either player collects a set of exactly three
numbers that add up to exactly 15, the game ends, and
that player wins. If all nine numbers are collected and
neither player has won, the game is a draw.
»» Go ahead and play this game, either against yourself or
against another player. Do you recognize it now?
The numbers 1 through 9 can be arranged in a 33 grid known
as a “magic square” where every row, column and diagonal
adds up to exactly 15.
Now you may recognize it. It is the game of Tic-Tac-Toe (or
Noughts and Crosses or several other names, depending on
where you live). So, is Tic-Tac-Toe the same game as Threeto-Fifteen, or are they different games? (The answer is, it
depends on what you mean… which is why it is important to
define what a “game” is!)
Working towards a Critical Vocabulary
When I say “vocabulary” what I mean is, a set of words that
allows us to talk about games. The word “critical” in this case
does not mean that we are being critical (i.e. finding fault with
a game), but rather that we are able to analyze games critically
(as in, being able to analyze them carefully by considering all
of their parts and how they fit together, and looking at both the
good and the bad).
Vocabulary might not be as fascinating as that game you want
to design with robot laser ninjas, but it is important, because
it gives us the means to talk about games. Otherwise we’ll
be stuck gesturing and grunting, and it becomes very hard to
learn anything if we can’t communicate.
One of the most common ways to talk about games is to
describe them in terms of other games. “It’s like Grand Theft
Auto meets The Sims meets World of Warcraft.” But this has
two limitations. First, if I haven’t played World of Warcraft,
then I won’t know what you mean; it requires us to both have
played the same games. Second, and more importantly, it does
not cover the case of a game that is very different. How would
you describe Katamari Damacy in terms of other games?
Another option, often chosen by those who write textbooks on
game design, is to invent terminology as needed and then use
it consistently within the text. I could do this, and we could at
least communicate with each other about fundamental game
design concepts. The problem here is what happens after this
course is over; the jargon from this course would become
useless when you were talking to anyone else. I cannot force
or mandate that the game industry adopt my terminology.
One might wonder, if having the words to discuss games is
such an important thing, why hasn’t it been done already?
Why hasn’t the game industry settled on a list of terms? The
answer is that it is doing so, but it is a slow process. We’ll see
plenty of this emerging in the readings, and it is a theme we
will return to many times during the first half of this course.
that are obviously games (so the definition is too narrow), or
accept things that are clearly not games (making the definition
too broad)… or sometimes both.
Here are some definitions from various sources:
A game has “ends and means”: an objective, an outcome,
and a set of rules to get there. (David Parlett)
A game is an activity involving player decisions, seeking
objectives within a “limiting context” [i.e. rules]. (Clark
C. Abt)
A game has six properties: it is “free” (playing is optional
and not obligatory), “separate” (fixed in space and time,
in advance), has an uncertain outcome, is “unproductive”
(in the sense of creating neither goods nor wealth — note
that wagering transfers wealth between players but does
not create it), is governed by rules, and is “make believe”
(accompanied by an awareness that the game is not Real
Life, but is some kind of shared separate “reality”).
(Roger Callois)
A game is a “voluntary effort to overcome unnecessary
obstacles.” This is a favorite among my classroom
students. It sounds a bit different, but includes a lot of
concepts of former definitions: it is voluntary, it has
goals and rules. The bit about “unnecessary obstacles”
implies an inefficiency caused by the rules on purpose
— for example, if the object of Tic Tac Toe is to get three
symbols across, down or diagonally, the easiest way to do
that is to simply write three symbols in a row on your first
turn while keeping the paper away from your opponent.
But you don’t do that, because the rules get in the way…
and it is from those rules that the play emerges. (Bernard
Games have four properties. They are a “closed, formal
system” (this is a fancy way of saying that they have rules;
“formal” in this case means that it can be defined, not that
it involves wearing a suit and tie); they involve interaction;
Games and Play
There are many kinds of play: tossing a ball around, playing
make-believe, and of course games. So, you can think of
games as one type of play.
Games are made of many parts, including the rules, story,
physical components, and so on. Play is just one aspect of
games. Therefore, you can also think of play as one part of
How can two things both be a subset the other? It seems like
a paradox, and it’s something you are welcome to think about
on your own. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter — the point
here is that games and play are concepts that are related.
So, what is a game, anyway?
You might have noticed I never answered the earlier question
of what a game is. This is because the concept is very difficult
to define, at least in a way that doesn’t either leave things out
they involve conflict; and they offer safety… at least
compared to what they represent (for example, American
Football is certainly not what one would call perfectly safe
— injuries are common — but as a game it is an abstract
representation of warfare, and it is certainly more safe than
being a soldier in the middle of combat). (Chris Crawford)
Games are a “form of art in which the participants,
termed Players, make decisions in order to manage
resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.”
This definition includes a number of concepts not seen in
earlier definitions: games are art, they involve decisions
and resource management, and they have “tokens”
(objects within the game). There is also the familiar
concept of goals. (Greg Costikyan)
Games are a “system in which players engage in an
artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a
quantifiable outcome” (”quantifiable” here just means,
for example, that there is a concept of “winning” and
“losing”). This definition is from the book Rules of Play
by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. That book also lists
the other definitions given above, and I thank the authors
for putting them all in one place for easy reference.
By examining these definitions, we now have a starting point
for discussing games. Some of the elements mentioned that
seem to be common to many (if not all) games include:
Games involve no material gain on the part of the
Games are voluntary. If you are held at gunpoint and
forced into an activity that would normally be considered
a game, some would say that it is no longer a game for
you. (Something to think about: if you accept this, then an
activity that is voluntary for some players and compulsory
for others may or may not be a game… depending on
whose point of view you are looking at.)
Games have an uncertain outcome.
Games are a representation or simulation of something
real, but they are themselves make believe.
Games are inefficient. The rules impose obstacles that
prevent the player from reaching their goal through the
most efficient means.
Games have systems. Usually, it is a closed system,
meaning that resources and information do not flow
between the game and the outside world.
Games are a form of art.
Games are an activity.
Weaknesses of Definitions
Games have rules.
Which of the earlier definitions is correct?
Games have conflict.
Games have goals.
Games involve decision making.
Games are artificial, they are safe, and they are outside
ordinary life. This is sometimes referred to as the players
stepping into the “Magic Circle” or sharing a “lusory
None of them are perfect. If you try to come up with your
own definition, it will likely be imperfect as well. Here are a
few common edge cases that commonly cause problems with
Puzzles, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, Rubik’s
Cube, or logic puzzles. Are these games? It depends
on the definition. Salen & Zimmerman say they are a
subset of games where there is a set of correct answers.
Costikyan says they are not games, although they may be
contained within a game.
and it is time to get that out of our systems now.
If you have never made a game before, it is time to get over
your fear. You are going to make a game now. Take out a
pencil and paper (or load up a drawing program like Microsoft
Paint). This will take all of 15 minutes and it will be fun and
painless, I promise.
Role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons.
They have the word “game” right in the title, yet they are
often not considered games (for example, because they
often have no final outcome or resolution, no winning or
Choose-your-own-adventure books. These are not
generally thought of as games; you say you are “reading”
a book, not “playing” it. And yet, it fits most of the criteria
for most definitions of a game. To make things even more
confusing, if you take one of these books, add a tear-out
“character sheet” with some numeric stats, include “skill
checks” on some pages where you roll a die against a stat,
and call it an “adventure module” instead of a “chooseyour-own-adventure book,” we would now call it a game!
I mean it, get ready. Okay?
z. Are games stories? On the one hand, most stories are
linear, while games tend to be more dynamic. On the other
hand, most games have some kind of story or narrative in
them; we even have professional story writers that work
on multi-million-dollar video game projects. And even
beyond that, a player can tell a story about their game
experience (”let me tell you about this Chess game I
played last night, it was awesome”). For now, keep in
mind that the concepts of story and game are related in
many ways, and we’ll explore this more thoroughly later
in the course.
First, draw some kind of path. It can be straight or curved. All
it takes is drawing a line. Now divide the path into spaces.
You have now completed the first step out of four. See how
easy this is?
Let’s Make a Game
You might be wondering how all of this is going to help you
make games. It isn’t, directly… but we need to at least take
some steps towards a shared vocabulary so that we can talk
about games in a meaningful way.
Here’s a thing about games. I hear a lot from students that
they’re afraid they won’t be able to make a game. They don’t
have the creativity, or the skills, or whatever. This is nonsense,
We are going to make what is referred to as a race-to-theend board game. You have probably played a lot of these; the
object is to get your token from one area of a game board
to another. Common examples include Candyland, Chutes &
Ladders, and Parcheesi. They are the easiest kind of game to
design, and you’re going to make one now.
Second, come up with a theme or objective. The players need
to get from one end of the path to the other; why? You are
either running towards something or running away from
something. What are the players represented as in the game?
What is their goal? In the design of many games, it is often
helpful to start by asking what the objective is, and a lot of
rules will fall into place just from that. You should be able to
come up with something (even if it is extremely silly) in just a
few minutes. You’re now half way done!
Third, you need a set of rules to allow the players to travel
from space to space. How do you move? The simplest way,
which you’re probably familiar with, is to roll a die on your
turn and move that many spaces forward. You also need to
decide exactly how the game ends: do you have to land on the
final space by exact count, or does the game end as soon as a
player reaches or passes it?
You now have something that has all the elements of a
game, although it is missing one element common to many
games: conflict. Games tend to be more interesting if you
can affect your opponents, either by helping them or harming
them. Think of ways to interact with your opponents. Does
something happen when you land on the same space as them?
Are there spaces you land on that let you do things to your
opponents, such as move them forward or back? Can you
move your opponents through other means on your turn (such
as if you roll a certain result on the die)? Add at least one way
to modify the standing of your opponents when it is your turn.
Congratulations! You have now made a game. It may not be
a particularly good game (as that is something we will cover
later in this course), but it is a functional game that can be
played, and you made it in just a few minutes, with no tools
other than a simple pencil and paper.
Credit for developing this exercise goes to my friend and
co-author, Brenda Brathwaite, who noticed that there is this
invisible barrier between a lot of people and game design, and
created this as a way to get her students over their initial fear
that they might not be able to design anything.
out to be as good as it seems in their head. Part of the process
involves killing weak ideas and making them stronger, by
actually making and playing your game. The faster you can
have something up and running, and the more times that you
can play it, the better a game you can make. If it takes you
more than a few minutes to make your first prototype of a new
idea, it is taking too long.
Level 1 - Homeplay
Some classes assign “homework problems.” I’m not sure what
is less fun: the concept of work at home, or having problems.
So, I call everything a “homeplay” because I want these to be
fun and interesting.
Before moving on to the next level, read the following:
Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 1 (Basics). This
is just a short introduction to the text.
I Have No Words and I Must Design (available at, by
Greg Costikyan. To me (and I’m sure others will disagree),
this essay is the turning point when game design started
to become its own field of study. Since it all started
here, for me at least, I think it only fitting to introduce
it at the start of this course. (There is a newer version at
[PDF] if you are interested, but I prefer the original for
its historical importance.)
Understanding Games 1, Understanding Games 2,
Understanding Games 3, and Understanding Games 4.
These are not readings, but playings. They are a series
of short Flash games that attempt to explain some basic
concepts of games in the form of a game. The name is
a reference to Understanding Comics, a comic book
that explains about comic books. Each one takes about
five minutes. They are all available at http://www.
Lessons Learned
If you take away nothing else from this little activity, realize
that you can have a playable game in minutes. It does not
take programming skill. It does not require a great deal of
creativity. It does not require lots of money, resources, or
special materials. It does not take months or years of time.
Making a good game may require some or all of these things,
but the process of just starting out with a simple idea is
something that can be done in a very short period of time with
nothing more than a few slips of paper.
Remember this as we move forward in this course. When we
talk about iteration and rapid prototyping, many people are
afraid to commit to a design, to actually build their idea. They
are afraid it will take too long, or that the idea will not turn
Game Design
Level 2:
Game Design / Iteration and
Rapid Prototyping
Originally posted July 2, 2009
ast time we asked the question: what is a
game? Today, we look into a related question:
what, exactly, is game design? Last time, we made
a simple game. This time, we will look into the
process of how games are made in general. While
it is possible to make a race-to-the-end board game
in 15 minutes, you will need to take a little longer
if you are looking to make the next Settlers of
Catan or World of Warcraft.
We will use the word “design” a lot in this course, and unfortunately it is a term that is a bit overused, so I will clarify
what I mean here. As it says in Challenges, game design is the
creation of the rules and content of a game. It does not involve
programming, art or animation, or marketing, or any of the
other myriad tasks required to make a game. All of these tasks
collectively can be called “game development” and game design is one part of development.
Unfortunately, I have seen the term “design” used (particularly in some college curricula) to refer to all aspects of development. When used in the video game industry (or the board
game industry), “game design” has a very specific meaning,
and that is the meaning that we will use for this course.
Multiple Types of Game Design
As mentioned in Challenges, there are many tasks associated
with game design: system design, level design, content design, user interface design, world building, and story writing.
You could fill several 10-week courses with any one of these,
so this summer course will not be a full treatment of the entire
range of game design. We will touch lightly on UI, story writing and content when relevant, but the majority of this course
focuses on system design (also sometimes called “systems
design” or “core systems design”).
System design is about defining the basic rules of the game.
What are the pieces? What can you control? What actions can
you take on your turn (if there are “turns” at all)? What happens when you take each action, and how does it affect the
game state? In general, system design is the creation of three
Rules for setup. How does the game begin?
Rules for progression of play. Once the game begins,
what can the players do, and what happens when they
do things?
Rules for resolution. What, if anything, causes the game
to end? If the game has an outcome (such as winning or
losing), how is that outcome determined?
If you look back at Three-to-Fifteen from Level 1, you’ll notice those very simple rules contain all of these parts. The creation of those rules is system design, and that is what we will
be spending most of our time with over this summer.
What is a Game Designer?
As you may have noticed, game design is an incredibly broad
field. Those of us who are professional designers sometimes
have trouble explaining what we do to our families and friends.
Part of the reason for this is that we do so many things. Here
are some analogies I’ve seen when trying to explain what it is
like to be a game designer:
Game designers are artists. The term “art” is just as
difficult to define as the word “game”… but if games can
be a form of art (as we saw in Costikyan’s definition, at
least), then designers would be artists.
Game designers are architects. Architects do not build
physical structures; they create blueprints. Video game
designers also create “blueprints” which are referred to as
“design docs.” Board game designers create “blueprints”
as well — in the form of prototypes — which are then
mass-produced by publishers.
Game designers are party hosts. As designers, we invite
players into our space and try our best to show them a
good time.
Game designers are research scientists. As I will touch
on later today, we create games in a manner that is very
close to the scientific method.
Game designers are gods. We create worlds, and we
create the physical rules that govern those worlds.
Game designers are lawyers. We create a set of rules that
others must follow.
Game designers are educators. As we will see later
when we start reading Theory of Fun, entertainment and
education are strongly linked, and games are (at least
sometimes) fun because they involve learning new skills.
If game design is all these things, where would it fit in a college curriculum? It could be justified in the school of education, or art, or architecture, or theology, or recreation management, or law, or engineering, or applied sciences, or half a
dozen other things.
Is a game designer all of these things? None of them? It is
open for discussion, but I think that game design has elements
of many other fields, but it is still its own field. And you can
see just how broad the field is! As the field of game design
advances, we may see a day where game designers are so specialized that “game design” will be like the field of “science”
— students will need to pick a specialty (Chemistry, Biology,
Physics, etc.) rather than just “majoring in Science.”
Speaking of Science…
How is a game designed? There are many methods.
Figure 1 - The Waterfall Method
Historically, the first design methodology was known as the
waterfall method: first you design the entire game on paper,
then you implement it (using programming in a video game,
or creating the board and pieces for a non-digital game), then
you test it to make sure the rules work properly, add some
graphical polish to make it look nice, and then you ship it.
Waterfall is so named because, like water in a waterfall, you
can only move in one direction. If you’re busy making the
final art for the game and it occurs to you that one of the rules
needs to change, too bad — the methodology does not include
a way to go back to the design step once you are done.
At some point, someone figured out that it might be a good
idea to at least have the option of going back and fixing things
in earlier steps, and created what is sometimes known as the
iterative approach.
changes? If you decide the game is good enough, then that is
that. But if you identify some changes, you now go back to
the design step, find ways to address the identified problems,
implement those changes, and then evaluate again. Continue
doing this until the game is ready.
If this sounds familiar, it is because this is more or less the
Scientific Method:
1. Make an observation. (”My experience in playing/making games has shown me that certain types of mechanics
are fun.”)
2. Make a hypothesis. (”I think that this particular set of
rules I am writing will make a fun game.”)
3. Create an experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
(”Let’s organize a playtest of this game and see if it is fun
or not.”)
4. Perform the experiment. (”Let’s play!”)
5. Interpret the results of the experiment, forming a new set
of observations. Go back to the first step.
With non-digital (card and board) games, this process works
fine, because it can be done quickly. With video games, there
is still one problem: implementation (i.e. programming and
debugging) is expensive and takes a long time. If it takes 18
months to code the game the first time and you only have two
years, you will not get a lot of time to playtest and modify the
In general, the more times you iterate, the better your
final game will be.
Figure 2 - The Iterative Approach
As with waterfall, you first design the game, then implement
it, and then make sure it works. But after this you add an extra
step of evaluating the game. Play it, decide what is good and
what needs to change. And then, make a decision: are you
done, or should you go back to the design step and make some
Therefore, any game design process should involve iterating
(that is, going through an entire cycle of designing, implementing and evaluating) as much as possible, and anything
you can do that lets you iterate faster will usually lead to a
better game in the end. Because of this, video game designers will often prototype on paper first, and then only get the
programmers involved when they are confident that the core
rules are fun. We call this rapid prototyping.
Iteration and Risk
Games have many kinds of risk associated with them. There is
design risk, the risk that the game will not be fun and people
won’t like it. There is implementation risk, the possibility
that the development team will not be able to build the game
at all, even if the rules are solid. There is market risk, the
chance that the game will be wonderful and no one will buy it
anyway. And so on.
don’t care how video games are made. But for those of you
who would love to make video games, you may have wondered why we will be spending so much time making board
and card games in this course. Now you know: it is because iteration is faster and cheaper with cardboard. Remember from
Monday: you can make a board game in 15 minutes. Coding that game will take significantly longer. When possible,
prototype on paper first, because a 15-minute paper prototype
and an hour-long playtest session can save you months of programming work.
Later in this course, we will discuss in detail methods of paper prototyping, both for traditional board games and also for
various types of video games.
Figure 3 - The Iterative Approach with Rapid Prototyping
The purpose of iteration is to lower design risk. The more
times you iterate, the more you can be certain that the rules of
your game are effective.
This all comes down to one important point: the greater the
design risk of your game (that is, if your rules are untested and
unproven), the more you need iteration. An iterative method is
not as critical for games where the mechanics are largely lifted
from another successful game; sequels and expansion sets to
popular games are examples of situations where a Waterfall
approach may work fine.
That said, most game designers have aspirations of making
games that are new, creative, and innovative.
Why This Course is Non-Digital…
1Some of you would rather make board games anyway, so you
There is another reason why we will concentrate primarily on
non-digital games this summer, particularly board and card
games. This is a course in systems design, that is, creating
the rules of the game. In board games, the rules are laid bare.
There may be some physical components, sure, but the play
experience is almost entirely determined by the rules and the
player interactions. If the rules are not compelling, the game
will not be fun, so working in this medium makes a clear connection between the rules and the player experience.
This is not as true in video games. Many video games have
impressive technology (such as realistic physics engines) and
graphics and sound, which can obscure the fact that the gameplay is stale. Video games also take much longer to make (due
to programming and art/audio asset creation), making them an
impractical choice for a ten-week course.
The connection between rules and player experience is also
muddied in tabletop role-playing games. I realize that many
of you have expressed an interest primarily in RPG design, so
this may seem strange to you. However, keep in mind that an
RPG is essentially a collaborative story-telling exercise (with
a rules system in place to set boundaries for what can and
can’t happen). As such, a wonderful system can be ruined by
players who have poor story-telling and improv skills, and a
weak system can be salvaged by skillful players. As such, we
will stay away from these game genres, at least in the early
Trying it out
Take that 15-minute game you made last time, and play it,
if you haven’t already. As you are playing, ask yourself: is
this more fun or less fun than playing your favorite published
games? Why? What could you change about your game to
make it better? You do not have to play the game to completion, but only for as long as it takes you to get the overall feeling of what it is like to play.
Then, after playing once, make at least one change. Maybe
you’ll change the rules for movement, or add a new way for
players to interact. Maybe you’ll change some of the spaces
on the board. Whatever you do, for whatever reason, make
a change and then play again. Note the differences. Has the
change made the game better, or worse? Has this one change
made you think of additional changes you could make? If
the game got worse, would you just change the rule back, or
would you change it again in a different way?
We will be looking at the playtest process in detail later in this
course. For now, I just want everyone to get over that fear:
“what if I play my game and it sucks?” With the game you designed in Level 1, the odds are very high that your game does
suck (seriously, did you expect to make the next Gears of War
in 15 minutes?). This does not make you a “bad designer” by
any means — but it should make it clear that the more time
you put into a game and the more iterations you make, the
better it gets.
Lessons Learned
The one big takeaway from today is that the more you iterate
on a game, the better it becomes. Great designers do not design great games. They usually design really bad games, and
then they iterate on them until the games become great.
This has two corollaries:
You want to have a playable prototype of your game
as early in development as possible. The faster you can
playtest your ideas, the more time you have to make
Given equal amounts of time, a shorter, simpler game will
give a better experience than a longer, complicated game.
A game that takes ten hours to play to completion will
give you fewer iterations than a game that can be played
in five minutes. When we start on the Design Project later
in this course, keep this in mind.
Level 2 - Homeplay
Before reading Level 3, read the following. I will be referencing these in Level 3’s content when we talk about the formal
elements of games:
Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 2 (Atoms). This
will act as a bridge between last Monday when we talked
about a critical vocabulary, and next Monday when we
will start breaking down the concept of a “game” into its
component parts.
Formal Abstract Design Tools (available at http://
design_tools_01.htm), by Doug Church. This
article builds on Costikyan’s I Have No Words, offering
some additional tools by which we can analyze and
design games. While he does use many examples from
video games, think about how the core concepts in the
article can apply to other kinds of games as well.
A note on the reading for today
One of the readings for today was Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. I want to mention a few things about this.
First, he mentions three aspects of games that are worth putting in our design toolbox:
Level 3:
Formal Elements of Games
Originally posted July 7, 2009
Player intention is defined as the ability of the player to
devise and carry out their own plans and goals. We will
come back to this later on in this course, but for now just
realize that it can be important in many games to allow
the player to form a plan of action.
Perceivable consequence is defined in the reading as a
clear reaction of the game to the player’s actions. Clarity is
important here: if the game reacts but you don’t know how
the game state has changed, then you may have difficulty
linking your actions to the consequences of those actions.
I’ll point out that “perceivable consequence” is known by
a more common name: feedback.
Story is the narrative thread of the game. Note that a game
can contain two different types of story: the “embedded”
story (created by the designer) and the “emergent”
story (created by players). Emergent story happens, for
example, when you tell your friends about a recent game
you played and what happened to you during the play:
“I had taken over all of Africa, but I just couldn’t keep
the Blue player out of Zaire.” Embedded story is what
we normally think of as the “narrative” of the game:
“You are playing a brave knight venturing into the castle
of an evil wizard.” Doug’s point is that embedded story
competes with intention and consequence — that is, the
more the game is “on rails”, the less the player can affect
the outcome. When Costikyan said in “I Have No Words”
that games are not stories, Doug provides what I think is
a better way of saying what Costikyan meant.
oday marks the last day that we continue in
building a critical vocabulary from which to
discuss games; in Level 4 we will dive right in
to the game design process. Today I want the last
pieces to fall into place: we need a way to dissect
and analyze a game by discussing its component
parts and how they all fit together. This can be
useful when discussing other people’s games (it
would be nice if, for example, more professional
game reviews could do this properly), but it is also
useful in designing our own games. After all, how
can you design a game if you don’t know how all
the different parts fit together?
Here is an example of why player intention and perceivable
consequence are important. Consider this situation: you are
playing a first-person shooter game. You walk up to a wall
that has a switch on it. You flip the switch. Nothing happens.
Well, actually something did happen, but the game gives you
no indication of what happened. Maybe a door somewhere
else in the level opened. Maybe you just unleashed a bunch of
monsters into the area, and you’ll run into them as soon as you
exit the current room. Maybe there are a series of switches,
and they all have to be in exactly the right pattern of on and
off (or they have to be triggered in the right order) in order
to open up the path to the level exit. But you have no way of
knowing, and so you feel frustrated that you must now do a
thorough search of everywhere you’ve already been… just to
see if the switch did anything.
How could you fix this? Add better feedback. One way would
be to provide a map to the player, and show them a location
on the map when the switch was pulled. Or, show a brief cut
scene that shows a door opening somewhere. I’m sure you can
think of other methods as well.
On another subject, Doug also included an interesting note
at the end of the article about how he values beta testing, and
half of his readers found the first two pages slow, so start at
page 3 if you’re in that half. This would be an example of
iteration in the design of this essay, of exactly the sort we
talked about.
Now, I’m sure this note was partly in jest, but let’s take it at
face value. There’s a slight problem with this fix: you don’t
see the note until you’ve already read all of the way through
the article, and it’s too late to do anything about it. If Doug
were to iterate on his design a second time, what would you
suggest he do? (I’ve heard many suggestions from my students in the past.)
Qualities of Games
It was rightly pointed out in the comments of this blog that
on the first day of this course, I contradicted myself: I insisted
that a critical vocabulary was important, and then I went on to
say that completely defining the word “game” is impossible.
Let’s reconcile this apparent paradox.
Take a quick look at the definitions listed in Level 1. Separate out all of the qualities listed from each definition that
may apply to games. We see some recurring themes: games
have rules, conflict, goals, decision-making, and an uncertain
outcome. Games are activities, they are artificial / safe / outside ordinary life, they are voluntary, they contain elements
of make-believe / representation / simulation, they are inefficient, they are art, and they are closed systems. Think for a
moment about what other things are common to all (or most)
games. This provides a starting point for us to identify individual game elements.
I refer to these as “formal elements” again, not because they
have anything to do with wearing a suit and tie, but because
they are “formal” in the mathematical and scientific sense:
something that can be explicitly defined. Challenges refers to
them as “atoms” — in the sense that these are the smallest
parts of a game that can be isolated and studied individually.
What are atomic elements of games?
This depends on who you ask. I have seen several schemes
of classification. Like the definition of “game,” none is perfect, but by looking at all of them we can see some emerging
themes that can shed light on the kinds of things that we need
to create as game designers if we are to make games.
What follows are some parts of games, and some of the things
designers may consider when looking at these atoms.
How many players does the game support? Must it be an exact
number (4 players only), or a variable number (2 to 5 players)? Can players enter or leave during play? How does this
affect play?
What is the relationship between players: are there teams, or
individuals? Can teams be uneven? Here are some example
player structures; this is by no means a complete list:
Solitaire (1 player vs. the game system). Examples
include the card game Klondike (sometimes just called
“Solitaire”) and the video game Minesweeper.
Head-to-head (1 player vs. 1 player). Chess and Go are
classic examples.
“PvE” (multiple players vs. the game system). This is
common in MMOs like World of Warcraft. Some purelycooperative board games exist too, such as Knizia’s Lord
of the Rings, Arkham Horror, and Pandemic.
One-against-many (1 player vs. multiple players). The
board game Scotland Yard is a great example of this; it
pits a single player as Mr. X against a team of detectives.
Free-for-all (1 player vs. 1 player vs. 1 player vs. …).
Perhaps the most common player structure for multiplayer games, this can be found everywhere, from board
games like Monopoly to “multiplayer deathmatch” play
in most first-person shooter video games.
Separate individuals against the system (1 player vs. a
series of other players). The casino game Blackjack is an
example, where the “House” is playing as a single player
against several other players, but those other players are
not affecting each other much and do not really help or
hinder or play against each other.
Team competition (multiple players vs. multiple players
[vs. multiple players...]). This is also a common structure,
finding its way into most team sports, card games like
Bridge and Spades, team-based online games like
“Capture the Flag” modes from first-person shooters, and
numerous other games.
Predator-Prey. Players form a (real or virtual) circle.
Everyone’s goal is to attack the player on their left, and
defend themselves from the player on their right. The
college game Assassination and the trading-card game
Vampire: the Eternal Struggle both use this structure.
Five-pointed Star. I first saw this in a five-player Magic:
the Gathering variant. The goal is to eliminate both of the
players who are not on either side of you.
Objectives (goals)
What is the object of the game? What are the players trying to
do? This is often one of the first things you can ask yourself
when designing a game, if you’re stuck and don’t know where
to begin. Once you know the objective, many of the other formal elements will seem to define themselves for you. Some
common objectives (again, this is not a complete list):
Capture/destroy. Eliminate all of your opponent’s pieces
from the game. Chess and Stratego are some well-known
examples where you must eliminate the opposing forces
to win.
Territorial control. The focus is not necessarily on
destroying the opponent, but on controlling certain areas
of the board. RISK and Diplomacy are examples.
Collection. The card game Rummy and its variants
involve collecting sets of cards to win. Bohnanza
involves collecting sets of beans. Many platformer video
games (such as the Spyro series) included levels where
you had to collect a certain number of objects scattered
throughout the level.
Solve. The board game Clue (or Cluedo, depending
on where you live) is an example of a game where the
objective is to solve a puzzle. Lesser-known (but more
interesting) examples are Castle of Magic and Sleuth.
Chase/race/escape. Generally, anything where you are
running towards or away from something; the playground
game Tag and the video game Super Mario Bros. are
Spatial alignment. A number of games involve positioning
of elements as an objective, including the non-digital
games Tic-Tac-Toe and Pente and the video game Tetris.
Build. The opposite of “destroy” — your goal is to
advance your character(s) or build your resources to a
certain point. The Sims has strong elements of this; the
board game Settlers of Catan is an example also.
Negation of another goal. Some games end when one
player performs an act that is forbiden by the rules, and
that player loses. Examples are the physical dexterity
games Twister and Jenga.
Rules (mechanics)
As mentioned last week, there are three categories of rules:
setup (things you do once at the beginning of the game), progression of play (what happens during the game), and resolution (what conditions cause the game to end, and how is an
outcome determined based on the game state).
Some rules are automatic: they are triggered at a certain point
in the game without player choices or interaction (”Draw a
card at the start of your turn” or “The bonus timer decreases
by 100 points every second”). Other rules define the choices
or actions that the players can take in the game, and the effects
of those actions on the game state.
Let’s dig deeper. Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play classifies three types of rules, which they call operational, constituative, and implied (these are not standard terms in the industry,
so the concepts are more important than the terminology in
this case). To illustrate, let’s consider the rules of Tic-Tac-Toe:
Players: 2
Setup: Draw a 3×3 grid. Choose a player to go first as X.
Their opponent is designated O.
Progression of play: On your turn, mark an empty square
with your symbol. Play then passes to your opponent.
Resolution: If you get 3 of your symbol in a row
(orthogonally or diagonally), you win. If the
board is filled and there is no winner, it is a draw.
These are what Rules of Play calls the “operational” rules.
Think for a moment: are these the only rules of the game?
At first glance, it seems so. But what if I’m losing and simply
refuse to take another turn? The rules do not explicitly give a
time limit, so I could “stall” indefinitely to avoid losing and
still be operating within the “rules” as they are typically stated. However, in actual play, a reasonable time limit is implied.
This is not part of the formal (operational) rules of the game,
but it is still part of what Rules of Play calls the “implied”
rules. The point here is that there is some kind of unwritten
social contract that players make when playing a game, and
these are understood even when not stated.
Even within the formal rules there are two layers. The 3×3
board and “X” and “O” symbols are specific to the “flavor”
of this game, but you could strip them away. By reframing
the squares as the numbers 1 through 9 and turning spatial
alignment into a mathematical property, you can get Three-toFifteen. While Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-to-Fifteen have different implementations and appearances, the underlying abstract
rules are the same. We do not normally think in these abstract
terms when we think of “rules” but they are still there, under
the surface. Rules of Play calls these “constituative” rules.
Is it useful to make the distinction between these three types
of rules? I think it is important to be aware of them for two
The distinction between “operational” and “constituative”
rules helps us understand why one game is fun in relation
to other games. The classic arcade game Gauntlet has
highly similar gameplay to the first-person shooter
DOOM; the largest difference is the position of the
camera. For those of you who play modern board games,
a similar statement is that Puerto Rico is highly similar
to Race for the Galaxy. The similarity may not be
immediately apparent because the games look so different
on the surface, unless you are thinking in terms of game
states and rules.
Many first-person shooters contain a rule where, when a
player is killed, they re-appear (”respawn”) in a specific
known location. Another player can stand near that
location and kill anyone that respawns before they have a
chance to react. This is known as “spawn-camping” and
can be rather annoying to someone on the receiving end of
it. Is spawn-camping part of the game (since it is allowed
by the rules)? Is it good strategy, or is it cheating? This
depends on who you ask, as it is part of the “implied”
rules of the game. When two players are operating under
different implied rules, you will eventually get one player
accusing the other of cheating (or just “being cheap”)
while the other player will get defensive and say that
they’re playing by the rules, and there’s no reason for
them to handicap themselves when they are playing to
win. The lesson here is that it is important for the game
designer to define as many of these rules as possible, to
avoid rules arguments during play.
Resources and resource management
“Resources” is a broad category, and I use it to mean everything that is under control of a single player. Obviously this
includes explicit resources (Wood and Wheat in Settlers of
Catan, health and mana and currency in World of Warcraft),
but this can also include other things under player control:
Territory in RISK
Number of questions remaining in Twenty Questions
Objects that can be picked up in video games (weapons,
Time (either game time, or real time, or both)
Known information (as the suspects that you have
eliminated in Clue)
What kinds of resources do the players control? How are these
resources manipulated during play? This is something the
game designer must define explicitly.
Game State
Some “resource-like” things are not owned by a single player,
but are still part of the game: unowned properties in Monopoly, the common cards in Texas Hold ‘Em. Everything in the
game together, including the current player resources and everything else that makes up a snapshot of the game at a single
point in time is called the game state.
In board games, explicitly defining the game state is not always necessary, but it is sometimes useful to think about. After all, what are rules, but the means by which the game is
transformed from one game state to another?
In video games, someone must define the game state, because
it includes all of the data that the computer must keep track of.
Normally this task falls to a programmer, but if the game designer can explicitly define the entire game state it can greatly
aid in the understanding of the game by the programming
How much of the game state is visible to each player? Changing the amount of information available to players has a drastic effect on the game, even if all other formal elements are
the same. Some examples of information structures in games:
A few games offer total information, where all players
see the complete game state at all times. Chess and Go
are classic board game examples.
Games can include some information that is private to
each individual. Think of Poker and other card games
where each player has a hand of cards that only they can
One player can have their own privileged information,
while other players do not. This is common in oneagainst-many player structures, like Scotland Yard.
The game itself can contain information that is hidden
from all players. Games like Clue and Sleuth actually
have the victory condition that a player discover this
hidden information.
These can be combined. Many “real-time strategy”
computer games use what is called “fog of war” where
certain sections of the map are concealed to any player
that does not have a unit in sight range. Some information
is therefore hidden from all players. Beyond that,
players cannot see each other’s screens, so each player
is unaware of what information is and isn’t available to
their opponents.
In what order do players take their actions? How does play
flow from one action to another? Games can work differently
depending on the turn structure that is used:
Some games are purely turn-based: at any given time it
is a single player’s “turn” on which they may take action.
When they are done, it becomes someone else’s turn.
Most classic board games and turn-based strategy games
work this way.
Other games are turn-based, but with simultaneous
play (everyone takes their turn at the same time, often
by writing down their actions or playing an action card
face-down and then simultaneously revealing). The
board game Diplomacy works like this. There is also
an interesting Chess variant where players write down
their turns simultaneously and then resolve (two pieces
entering the same square on the same turn are both
captured) that adds tension to the game.
Still other games are real-time, where actions are taken as
fast as players can take them. Most action-oriented video
games fall into this category, but even some non-digital
games (such as the card games Spit or Speed) work this
There are additional variations. For a turn-based game,
what order do players take their turns? Taking turns in
clockwise order is common. Taking turns in clockwise
order and then skipping the first player (to reduce the
first-player advantage) is a modification found in many
modern board games. I’ve also seen games where turn
order is randomized for each round of turns, or where
players pay other resources in the game for the privilege
of going first (or last), or where turn order is determined
by player standing (player who is currently winning goes
first or last).
Turn-based games can be further modified by the addition
of an explicit time limit, or other form of time pressure.
Player Interaction
This is an often-neglected but highly important aspect of
games to consider. How do players interact with one another?
How can they influence one another? Here are some examples
of player interactions
Direct conflict (”I attack you”)
Negotiation (”If you support me to enter the Black Sea,
I’ll help you get into Cairo next turn”)
Trading (”I’ll give you a Wood in exchange for your
Information sharing (”I looked at that tile last turn and
I’m telling you, if you enter it a trap will go off”)
Theme (or narrative, backstory, or setting)
These terms do have distinct meanings for people who are
professional story writers, but for our purposes they are used
interchangeably to mean the parts of the game that do not directly affect gameplay at all.
If it doesn’t matter in terms of gameplay, why bother with this
at all? There are two main reasons. First, the setting provides
an emotional connection to the game. I find it hard to really
care about the pawns on my chessboard the way I care about
my Dungeons & Dragons character. And while this doesn’t
necessarily make one game “better” than another, it does
make it easier for a player to become emotionally invested in
the game.
The other reason is that a well-chosen theme can make a game
easier to learn and easier to play, because the rules make sense.
The piece movement rules in Chess have no relation to the
theme and must therefore be memorized by someone learning the game. By contrast, the roles in the board game Puerto
Rico have some relation to their game function: the builder
lets you build buildings, the mayor recruits new colonists, the
captain ships goods off to the Old World, and so on. It is easy
to remember what most actions do in the game, because they
have some relation to the theme of the game.
Games as Systems
I’d like to call two things about these formal elements to your
First, if you change even one formal element, it can make for
a very different game. Each formal element of a game contributes in a deep way to the player experience. When designing a
game, give thought to each of these elements, and make sure
that each is a deliberate choice.
Second, note that these elements are interrelated, and changing one can affect others. Rules govern changes in Game State.
Information can sometimes become a Resource. Sequencing
can lead to different kinds of Player Interaction. Changing the
number of Players can affect what kinds of Objectives can be
defined. And so on.
Because of the interrelated nature of these parts, you can
frame any game as a system. (One dictionary definition of the
word “system” is: a combination of things or parts that form
a complex whole.)
In fact, a single game can contain several systems. World of
Warcraft has a combat system, a quest system, a guild system,
a chat system, and so on…
Another property of systems is that it is hard to fully under-
stand or predict them just by defining them; you gain a far
deeper understanding by seeing the system in action. Consider the physical system of projectile motion. I can give you
a mathematical equation to define the path of a ball being
thrown, and you could even predict its behavior… but the
whole thing makes a lot more sense if you see someone actually throwing a ball.
Games are like this, too. You can read the rules and define
all the formal elements of a game, but to truly understand a
game you need to play it. This is why most people do not immediately see the parallel between Tic-Tac-Toe and Three-toFifteen until they have played them.
Critical Analysis of Games
What is a critical analysis, and why do we care?
Critical analysis is not just a game review. We are not concerned with how many out of five stars, or any numbers from
0 to 10, or whether or not a game is “fun” (whatever that
means), or aiding in the consumer decision of whether or not
to buy a game.
Critical analysis does not just mean a list of things that are
wrong with the game. The word “critical” in this context does
not mean “fault-finding” but rather a thorough and unbiased
look at the game.
Critical analysis is useful when discussing or comparing
games. You can say “I like the card game Bang! because it’s
fun” but that does not help us as designers to learn why it is
fun. We must look at the parts of games and how they interact
in order to understand how each part relates to the play experience.
Critical analysis is also useful when examining our own works
in progress. For a game that you’re working on, how do you
know what to add or remove to make it better?
There are many ways to critically analyze a game, but I offer
a three-step process:
1. Describe the game’s formal elements. Do not interpret at
this point, simply state what is there.
2. Describe the results of the formal elements when put in
motion. How do the different elements interact? What is
the play of the game like? Is it effective?
3. Try to understand why the designer chose those elements
and not others. Why this particular player structure, and
why that set of resources? What would have happened if
the designer had chosen differently?
Some questions to ask yourself during a critical analysis at
various stages:
Understanding a game is much easier if you have played
Analyzing a game requires looking at all of the game’s
working parts, and figuring out how they fit together and
how a play experience arises from them.
Designing a game requires the creation of all of the
game’s parts. If you haven’t defined the formal elements
of your game in some way, then you don’t really have a
game… you just have the seed of an idea. This is fine, but
to make it into a game you must actually design it.
Level 3 - Homeplay
What challenges do the players face? What actions can
players take to overcome those challenges?
How do players affect each other?
Is the game perceived by the players as fair? (Note that
it may or may not actually be fair. Perception and reality
often differ.)
Is the game replayable? Are there multiple paths to
victory, varied start positions, or optional rules that cause
the experience to be different each time?
What is the game’s intended audience? Is the game
appropriate for that audience?
With that said, here is an activity that I hope you will find fun.
It is based off of Challenge 2-5 in the Challenges text, with
some minor changes just to keep you on your toes.
What is the “core” of the game — the one thing you
do over and over that represents the main “fun” part?
Here’s how it works. First, choose your difficulty level based
on your previous experience with game design. Skiiers may
find this familiar:
Lessons Learned
We covered a lot of content today. The main takeaways I offer:
Games are systems.
It was brought to my attention that I have been using the word
“homeplay” to refer to the reading, and that reading is not play
no matter how I dress it up. This criticism is valid; normally
in my classroom courses I use “homeplay” to refer to actual
game design assignments and not readings, and I mixed the
terms up here. I will make an attempt to avoid this confusion
in the future, because I believe that trying to treat learning as
an inherently Not-Fun activity (as evidenced by the need to
use fancy fun-sounding words to describe it) is damaging to
our collective long-term well being. As we will see when we
get into flow theory, the reality is actually the opposite.
Here is your challenge:
Most war-themed games have an objective of either territorial
control or capture/destroy (as described earlier). For this challenge, you’ll be pushing beyond these traditional boundaries.
You should design a non-digital game that includes the following:
The theme must relate to World War I. The primary objective of players cannot be territorial control, or capture/destroy.
You cannot use territorial control or capture/destroy as game dynamics. That is, your game is
not allowed to contain the concepts of territory or
death in any form.
As above, and the players may not engage in direct
conflict, only indirect.
On the forums for this course (, you should
find one area for each difficulty level. Post your game rules
in the appropriate level. Then, after you have posted, read at
least two other posts from your difficulty level and offer a
constructive analysis and critique. If you are at blue-square
or black-diamond difficulty, also read at least two other posts
from the difficulty level immediately below yours and offer
the benefit of your experience to those who you could mentor.
Make sure that everyone can get feedback and post on those
who haven’t gotten any yet.
A note about research…
Note that you may have to do some actual research to complete this project (even if only looking to Wikipedia for inspiration). This is typical of much game design in the field. Many
laypersons imagine game designers as these people that just
sit and think at their desk all day, then eventually stand up and
proclaim, “I have this Great Idea for a game! Ninjas… and
lasers… in space! Go forth and build it, my army of programmer and art lackeys. I shall sit here now until I come up with
another Great Idea, while collecting royalties from my last
five ideas.” This is not even close to reality. A great deal of
design is the details: defining the rules, certainly, but also doing research to make sure that the rules fit the constraints and
are appropriate for the project.
A note about IP law…
At this point, some of you may be thinking that by posting
your game to the forum, you run the risk that someone will
Steal Your Great Idea. How can you protect yourself from
the threat of someone taking your basic idea, turning it into a
working, sellable game, and leaving you with nothing?
One of the participants of this course, Dan Rosenthal, has
kindly written an article that details the basics of IP (intellectual property) law as it pertains to games, viewable at
Legal-Issues-for-Game-Developers. The article
admits to being US-centric, but the core idea (which is worth
repeating here) should be sound no matter where you are:
“Remember, ideas are not copyrightable, they’re not trademarkable, not trade secretable, and both difficult and prohibitively expensive to patent. You can’t protect them anyway, and
you shouldn’t try — instead you should try to come up with
new ones, and start working on the good ones. Don’t freak out
when you see things like Game Jams, or this course and think
“Ian says I should post my work to the discussion forum, but I
came up with a Great Idea(tm) and I don’t want other people
to steal it.” Ideas are commonplace in games, and the value of
your idea is nothing compared to the value of the implementation of that idea, your expertise and hard work in developing
it into something that’s going to make you real money. But
most importantly, our industry is very lateral, very tight-knit,
very collaborative. You’ll find people sharing their ideas at
GDC, doing collaborative projects between studios, or using
inspiration from one game’s mechanics to improve another.
Don’t fight it. That’s the way things work, and by embracing
that open atmosphere, you’ll be far better off.”
What about for larger projects where the stakes are higher?
Is there a process that can be followed that will lead to better games? There is the iterative process, to be sure, but we
have not gone into detail on any of the iterative steps (design,
playtesting, evaluation). How exactly do you come up with
an initial design? What is the most effective way to playtest?
When evaluating a game, what do you look for, and how do
you know what to change? These are the things we will be
concerned with throughout the rest of this course.
Level 4:
The Early Stages of the Design
Originally posted July 9, 2009
e have already made some games in this
course, so we have already been through the
creation process on a small scale. But our method
of design, for the most part, has been ad-hoc: here
are a bunch of elements, just throw them together
and call it a game. The results of this type of
design can be expected to be hit-and-miss.
Today, we examine the first step of the iterative process: initial
A Note on Constraints
An interesting thing happened for this Monday’s challenge:
more people attempted the Black Diamond (highest difficulty)
than those who did all of the other difficulties combined. By
contrast, when signing up, only about a tenth of the participants identified themselves as experienced game designers.
What is going on here?
Part of it may be pride. Even though people will admit a total
lack of experience to me in private email, broadcasting it on
forums is another thing entirely. Part of it may be the thrill of
the challenge. People want to know just how far they can push
However, part of it may be that adding constraints makes a
challenge easier. This sounds unintuitive; after all, isn’t a new
constraint just one more thing you can’t do? With more roadblocks, shouldn’t a task be harder? Not always, in the case of
game design.
To understand this, we can look at the process of game design
as a successive layering of constraints on a game. Every new
rule you add, every resource you define, is just one more constraint on the players. At the start of the design process you
may have nothing, and the players could do anything at all; by
the end, the player experience is sharply defined and heavily
constrained in a way that is fun. (We will address what “fun”
actually is, later in the course.)
To put this in perspective, consider the so-called genre of
“open world” video games (popularized by Grand Theft
Auto). The typical player reaction is that these games let you
do anything, they give complete freedom to the player, and
that is why they are fun. However, a critical look at the games
shows that they do not give complete freedom. The games
actually constrain the player in many ways: there are only certain ways a player can move, a defined set of objects they can
interact with, and the autonomous computer-controlled agents
that wander around are governed by specific algorithms. The
player has many decisions and a relatively open set of goals,
to be sure, but there are a great deal of constraints that lead to
this illusion of “being able to do anything.”
If you accept this explanation, that design is the creation of
constraints, then you can see that constraints imposed from
outside can be thought of as providing some of the initial design. By adding constraints, there is less design work to be
done. Thus explains the paradox.
Constraints can also provide a useful anchor for your ideas. If
I just say “go make a game” with no constraints, many people
would just sit there like a deer in headlights, wondering where
to begin. By adding a constraint (such as “World War I”), the
question is no longer “where do I start” but rather, “what do
I do with this.” And that is a much easier question to answer.
Most of the challenges in this course will involve constraints.
In fact, most design in the Real World happens within constraints: a publisher asking for a game that uses a certain IP or
within a certain genre or within a given time and budget, for
example. One of the reasons I mention this, then, is to remind
you that these constraints may sometimes seem ridiculous
(”do I really have to come up with a concept for a My Little
Pony game for DS?”) but that in fact they can often make a
designer’s life much, much easier.
There is one other reason I mention constraints. For those rare
times in your life when there are truly no constraints imposed
on you by others (this is more common with “indie” development and hobbyist designers than with professionals), if you
have trouble getting started, one way is to generate some constraints for yourself. Give yourself a time limit (”Game Jam”
events typically challenge people to make a game in as little
as 24 or 48 hours). Choose a subject matter that interests you
and use it for the theme. Select a core mechanic that you’d
like to explore. It can be completely arbitrary, but if you are
stuck and don’t know what direction to take your game, go
ahead and just choose an extra constraint to get yourself moving. (With iteration, you can always remove that arbitrary constraint later if you find it’s holding back your design.)
Generating Ideas
The first thing that happens in a design is that you must come
up with the basic core of an idea. This isn’t necessarily fullyformed, but just a basic concept. There are many different
starting points for a game’s design. Here are some examples,
in no particular order:
Start with the core “aesthetics” — what do you want the
player to feel? How do you want them to react? What
should the play experience be like? Then work backwards
from the player experience to figure out a set of rules that
will achieve the desired aesthetic. Think about the best
experience you’ve ever had while playing a game; what
game rules led to that experience?
Start with a rule or system that you observe in everyday
life, particularly one that requires people to make
interesting decisions. Look at the world around you; what
systems do you see that would make good games?
Start with an existing, proven design, then make
modifications to improve on it (the “clone-and-tweak”
method). This often happens when making sequels and
ports of existing games. Think of a game that you thought
had potential, but didn’t quite take the experience as far
as they could; how would you make it better?
Start with technology, such as a new game engine (for
video games) or a special kind of game piece (like a
rotateable base for miniature figures). Find a way to make
use of it in a game. What kinds of items do you have
lying around your living space that have never been used
in a board game before, but that would make great game
games, mechanics, stories, and everything else. Look
back through it from time to time to see if there’s anything
from years ago that you can use. Add to it whenever an
idea occurs to you that you can’t use immediately, but
that you want to return to later.
Start with materials from other sources, such as existing
art or game mechanics that didn’t make it in to other
projects. Design a game to make use of them. Do you
have an art portfolio, or earlier game designs that you
didn’t turn into finished products? What about public
domain works, such as Renaissance art? How could you
design a game around these?
Think of something random. Try to find a way to integrate
it into your game.
Start with a narrative and then design game rules to fit,
making a story-driven game. What kinds of stories work
well in games?
Do some research. Learn about some aspect of the game
in more depth, and you will likely find new ideas.
Start with market research: perhaps you know that a
certain demographic is underserved, and want to design a
game specifically for them. Or maybe you just know that
a certain genre is “hot” right now, and that there are no
major games of that type coming out in a certain range
of dates, so there is an opportunity. How do you turn this
knowledge into a playable game?
Go back to the basics. Think of the formal elements of
your game. What are the player goals? Rules? Resources?
And so on. Note that you’ll need to define these anyway
in order to have a game, so by focusing on these one at a
time it may give you new questions to answer.
Formalized brainstorming, either alone or in a group.
Some people swear by this method, while others say the
results are questionable. The best I can say is that the
results are highly unpredictable… as is the case with most
Think critically about games. You may have my textbook
on game design that contains some of what Brenda and
I have learned over the years, but you should write your
own book over the course of your lifetime (whether you
publish it or not, at least keep it for yourself). When you
discover something that does or doesn’t work in a game
and you think you can identify the root cause as a “law”
(or at least a guideline) of game design that is broadly
applicable, write it down! If you don’t know why, write
that down too, and come back to it periodically until you
find the answer.
Play lots of games! But… play as a designer and not just
a player. Don’t just play for enjoyment. Instead, play
critically. Ask yourself what choices were made by the
designer of the game, and why you think those choices
were made, and whether or not they work. Play games
in genres that you don’t like or have never tried, and
Combinations of several of these. For example, starting
with core aesthetics and narrative at the same time,
you can make a game where the story and gameplay are
highly integrated.
When you think of new ideas for games, what kinds of ideas
do you have? What are your starting points? What does this
say about you as a designer, and the kinds of games you are
likely to make?
Other Methods of Idea Generation
If you are stuck with “designer’s block” (the game design
equivalent of “writer’s block”) there are a number of strategies you’ll see mentioned in various places. Here are a few:
Keep a permanent collection of all of your ideas for
try to figure out why other people find them fun. Also,
published hint guides can be useful to read — they are
basically glorified design documents that detail all of the
systems of a game!
maximum information for minimum play time… but
there is a natural limit to this, and beyond a certain point
you can’t rush through playing the game.
Evaluation doesn’t take very long; you’re making a
simple yes/no decision of whether the game is “done” or
“good enough” based on playtest results. There is little to
be gained by rushing through this further.
So, that leaves reducing the time it takes to create a
Remember, the more times you can iterate on your idea, the
better the final game will be. Once you have a basic idea, the
next step is to get it in playable form as quickly and cheaply
as possible. That will leave you with as much time as possible
to playtest and iterate.
Some things to keep in mind when building a playable prototype:
»» Build it as fast as possible. Cut corners. Make it as ugly
and cheap as you can get away with.
And lastly, practice. Work on your own projects. The
more you make games, the better you get at making
them… just like any other art form.
As mentioned last time, iteration is the most critical for those
parts of your game that have high design risk. For “clone-andtweak” games where you are mostly lifting gameplay from an
existing game, rapid prototyping is less important. This does
not mean that “clone” games do not benefit from iteration, but
simply that you should use it selectively in those areas where
you are innovating. Keep this in mind for today’s challenge.
“Laws” of Prototyping
Remember that the entire purpose of prototyping is to maximize the number of iterative cycles. Corollary: do everything
you can to reduce the time required in each iteration. Now,
consider that each iterative cycle consists generally of four
steps: design, prototyping, playtesting, and evaluation. Of
these steps, where can you save time?
You can’t really reduce the time it takes to design the
rules of the game, without compromising your goals. You
can’t rush creativity.
You can reduce time spent in playtesting by being
efficient about scheduling and designing playtests to give
Minimize what you need to build. Only do what is
absolutely necessary to evaluate your game. If you’re
trying to test out a new combat system, you do not need
to build the entire exploration system. If you’re making a
card game, hand writing on index cards is faster to make
than typing everything into Powerpoint, printing on heavy
card stock, and cutting it all out manually. There is a time
and place for making nice-looking components, and the
early stages of game design is not that time or that place.
Make your prototype easy to change. You will find
problems in playtesting, so make it easy to adjust on the
All of these guidelines push designers towards one inevitable
Prototyping in Paper
You can call it “paper” or “cardboard” or “non-digital” or
“analog” or any number of things, but the idea is to have a
physical, tabletop game that is playable without computers (or
at least, without requiring programming code). Programming
similarities and differences between the Street Fighter
series of video games, and James Ernest’s real-time card
battle game Brawl.Some things carry over well… others,
not so much.
is wonderful and powerful but it is also slow and expensive in
comparison to paper prototypes. Here are some advantages of
paper prototyping:
It is cheap. Most systems can be prototyped with little
more than a pencil and some paper, although I will give
suggestions for other components for those of you that
have some money to spend.
It’s fast. You don’t have to mess around with programming,
or layouts, or artwork. Just write a few words on a scrap
of paper.
It’s easy to change. Don’t like one of your numbers?
Erase it and write in a new one.
There is no guilt about throwing it away. You came
up with an idea that didn’t work? Oh well, you lost a
whole half hour. Big deal. It’s like making stick-figure
drawings: if your first attempt at drawing a stick figure
doesn’t work, it only took you a few seconds, so just cross
it out and try again.
Paper can be used to model most gameplay systems. Yes,
even most of the ones we normally associate with being
specific to video games.
By making something playable, you are forced to actually
design the systems. No more handwaving of “this game
will have 50 undefined cards”. You have to actually do
your job as the game designer, and design the game!
Limitations of Paper
Paper prototypes do have some limitations that you should be
aware of:
They cannot always handle “twitch” (dexterity or timing
based) mechanics… although be aware that there are
many dexterity-based non-digital games. Consider the
Information that is hidden to both players but that
still requires bookkeeping, such as the “Fog of War”
mechanics prevalent in Real-Time Strategy video games.
Again, note that this can sometimes be worked around
— the classic children’s game Battleship has “fog-ofwar-like” mechanics, and the board game Clue has
information hidden from all players.
Extremely complex calculations are tedious on paper,
and the systems that use them may be better suited to
“prototyping” in a spreadsheet program like Excel.
However, if the complex systems are a necessary and
core part of the game, it may be a sign that “the computer
is having more fun than the player” (to quote Sid Meier),
and that perhaps some simplification would make the
game more accessible.
“Eye candy” such as high-quality art and animation
is obviously not prototyped easily with stick-figure
drawings and handwritten cards. Then again, these are
not part of the game mechanics. If your game relies on
visuals rather than systems, that is a sign that you are
not doing a strong enough job as the systems designer.
Paper prototypes are not very well suited for testing the
user interface (UI) of a video game. Computer UIs are
dynamic, but paper is static. You can get an idea of the
visual layout with some paper sketches, but to know
how it will actually be used on a computer, you’d need a
digital prototype.
As you can see, the advantages of paper prototyping are very
general and the limitations are specific, so the ability to prototype in paper is an important skill for any game designer to
develop, whether they work in video games or board games or
anything in between.
The Non-Digital Designer’s Prototyping
Several of each type, in different colors. These provide
independent random variables (as opposed to the
dependent randomness of card draws). For more
information on the uses of dice and cards, see Chapter
5 in the Challenges text. Note that dice can also make
decent playing pieces that can simultaneously “store” a
single number on them — for example, a six-sided die
could represent a warrior with up to 6 hit points.
What follows is a list of materials that I have personally found
useful when prototyping. Other designers may have their favorite materials, so I look forward to seeing the discussion
that will inevitably be generated by this list:
Paper, of several varieties: blank, lined, and graph.
These are useful for general note-taking, and for the fast
construction of makeshift game boards and other surfaces.
Colored pens and pencils. Obviously you need something
to write with. Colors give an easy way to differentiate
between game elements, or to annotate your game
Index cards (3″x5″). These make it easy to make cards.
They shuffle reasonably well. You can cut them in halves
or thirds for different card sizes. You can also just write
ideas down on these and tape them on the wall, making it
easy to arrange your thoughts visually. These are versatile
and cheap.
Scissors and tape. For breaking things apart and sticking
them together, respectively. These are to game design
what WD-40 and duct tape are to handymen, for the same
Paper clips and/or binder clips. This lets you store related
materials in one place. For example, if you create several
“decks” of index cards, this lets you hold them together
so they don’t get mixed up with each other (or worse,
mixed up with cards from other prototypes).
Glass beads (sometimes called “Pente stones”) in
different colors. These make great markers, counters, and
playing pieces.
Dice, of varying types (4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sided).
A small bag of low-value coins (pennies in the United
States, and I admit ignorance to how other countries
handle coin-based currency). Coins make good markers,
they can be flipped for a random variable, they have two
sides so they can represent either of two states (such as
which of two players currently controls them), and they
can be stacked more easily than dice or glass beads.
Colored sticky-dots (small round adhesive labels). You
can put them on stones, dice or pennies to mark them,
differentiate them, or customize them. You can write on
the dots to provide additional information if needed.
A paper notebook that is kept with your prototypes and
used exclusively for taking notes in playtests. This is not
something you want to accidentally lose track of!
Where do you find these things? It depends where you live.
Most, you can get at an office supply store (Staples, Office
Depot and Office Max are the big stores near where I live;
you may have others), except for dice, glass beads, and coins.
The coins, you can get at a bank (in the United States, you
can get a hundred pennies for only one dollar — a bargain by
any standard for quality game components!). Dice are generally found in hobby-game stores or comic-book shops, or
purchased online. Glass beads can be found in a variety of
places. Hobby-game stores have them. Pet stores that sell fish
equipment may sell them as aquarium stones. Art/craft hobby
stores may sell them as glass beads for jewelry and craft projects. They also come as components with many games (notably Pente), if you can find a game with glass beads for cheap.
Craft and hobby stores, both the retail chains and online (Mi-
chael’s is the big chain store in my area), can offer great inspiration for game designers. I’ve found large quantities of
unpainted and colored wooden cubes (great as resource markers and also as custom dice) and wooden discs (they feel better and are larger than pennies). Once, I found a set of flat
painted wooden cut-outs, maybe an inch square, of bunnies
and another set of carrots; I don’t know what I’ll ultimately do with them, but there is a game that will be made with
them some day. Craftparts (http://www.craftparts.
com/) has wooden people-shaped pawns and square tiles in
various sizes. These kinds of quality components may not be
immediately suitable for quick-and-dirty paper prototypes,
but they can certainly come into use as your project becomes
more developed.
Your First Paper Prototype
Here are the rules for the classic children’s game Battleship:
Objective: sink all five ships in your opponent’s fleet
before they do the same to you.
Setup: Each player has a 10×10 grid of squares, with the
rows labeled with numbers 1 through 10 and the columns
labeled with letters A through J. Each player has five
ships: one ship that is 2 squares long, two ships that are
each 3 squares long, one ship that is 4 squares long and
one ship that is 5 squares long. Each player secretly places
their ships on their own grid, in such a way that each ship
is oriented sideways or up-and-down (not diagonally) and
that ships do not overlap. A player is chosen to go first.
Progression of play: On a player’s turn, they call out a
single square by its coordinates (such as “B-5″ or “H10″). If the named square is not occupied by any of the
opponent’s ships, the opponent says “Miss”. If the square
is occupied, the opponent says “Hit”. Additionally, if the
square was a “hit” and the ship that was hit has had all
of its sections hit, the ship is considered “sunk” and the
opponent must tell you which ship was sunk. No matter
what the result, after the action is resolved, play passes to
the opponent.
Resolution: When one player sinks all five ships of the
opponent’s fleet, that player is the winner.
Normally, this game is available in toy stores. It comes on a
plastic board with plastic pegs. Some fancy electronic versions require batteries and have sound. But I bet if you think
about it, you could prototype this game in paper in less than
five minutes. How would you do this?
If you couldn’t guess, all you’d have to do is draw two 10×10
grids on a sheet of paper for each of the two players (one to
keep track of your fleet, and one to track the results of your
shots against the opponent). This is all you need to play, and it
gives pretty much the same experience as the “real” version!
Now, try this thought experiment: critically analyze Battleship as a game. What are the weaknesses of its design? How
would you modify the rules of the game to make it better? If
you are taking this course in a group, discuss this with your
colleagues. Then, consider: how would you modify your paper
prototype to test out your new rules in a playtest to see if they
work? Usually, this is trivial to do. Here are some examples
from the times when I’ve taught this course in a classroom:
»» Allow players to move their own ships if they haven’t yet
been hit. (To modify the prototype: just allow players to
erase and re-draw their ships.)
Allow players to use a “sonar sweep” instead of firing
a shot on their turn: they name any 3×3 square area on
the board, and the opponent says the number of squares
in that area (from 0 to 9) that are occupied by ships. (No
modifications necessary, just play with this as a new rule.)
Let players take another turn immediately if they score a
“hit”. (Again, no modifications necessary, just play with
this new rule.)
Use differently-shaped ships: instead of lines, have a
T-shaped or square-shaped ship, like Tetris pieces. (To
modify the prototype, just draw the ships in different
Give each player one area-effect bomb that hits everything
in an entire 3×3 square area. They can use it on their turn
instead of taking a normal shot, but only once per game
per player. (Again, just play with the modified rules.)
For example, consider these rules:
Players: 2 to 6, free-for-all
Shorten the game by playing on a 6×6 grid instead of
10×10. (Just draw the grid differently on paper.)
Objective: shoot your opponents
Setup: Players start at designated starting locations on the
board. The board is subdivided into hexagons (”hexes”).
Each player is facing in one of the six directions leading
away from their space towards another hex. Each player
takes a set of the following cards: Move, Turn, Move/
Turn, Fire.
Progression of Play: Each turn, all players select one
of their cards and play face-down. Cards are revealed
simultaneously. First, any players who selected Move
get to move up to 2 spaces away in any direction(s),
but they cannot turn and must continue to face the same
direction they started the turn facing. Next, any players
who selected Move/Turn may move up to 1 space and
also change their facing by a single hex (60 degrees) in
either the clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Next,
any players who selected Turn can change their facing to
any direction they want. Finally, any player who chose
Fire immediately hits and kills any opponent(s) that they
can see. Any player who is killed is eliminated from the
game. After the turn, players collect the card they played.
They may play this card or another one on the next turn.
Resolution: When one player is left standing, that player
wins. If two or more players shoot and kill each other on
the same turn simultaneously, the game is a draw.
As you can see, modifying the rules to a paper prototype is
very fast and easy, and you could go through many iterations
in a short period of time. Don’t be afraid that your idea will be
“bad”! Of course it will be bad. Even experienced designers
create “bad” games in their first iteration. But you will never
turn it into a good game unless you start somewhere. A paper
prototype is very often the ideal starting point.
Prototyping Realtime Systems
For a turn-based game like Battleship, a non-digital prototype
is easy enough to put together. What if you wanted to prototype a First-Person Shooter video game like Halo? Is there
any possible way to do that on paper, when most of the game
is running around and shooting things in real time? The answer is yes, absolutely. Here are some hints:
»» One “turn” of a board game is equivalent to some amount
of time (say, 3 seconds) of real-time play
For “twitch” mechanics like dodging and accuracy that
require accurate timing, either a player succeeds or fails
at these based on how difficult they are and how skilled
the player is. This can be modeled with a random die
roll. Note that even though the video game’s system is
not random at all, it may as well be random from the
opponent’s perspective: if I shoot at you and you either do
or do not successfully dodge, I have no control over that.
Many real-time games take place on an open 3D map that
is not subdivided into “spaces”. This does not prevent
you from making a game board that has spaces anyway.
Then you just draw up a quick hex map, maybe fill in a few
hexes to represent obstacles that players cannot walk or shoot
through, and play. Try it out!
And if you do try it out, you’ll immediately notice the game
needs some iteration. For example, I didn’t define what a player “can see” so there is no way from the rules above to tell if a
shot hits or not. You will have to define this more explicitly on
your own (maybe it means in a straight line, or maybe within a
certain range, or maybe something else). You may also notice
that the game is not very deep; there are no respawns, powerups, ammo, health packs, special weapons, or anything else.
The game does not immediately support common variants
like Capture-the-Flag or King-of-the-Hill. All of these things
could be added, however, in just a few minutes.
What would this kind of prototype be useful for? You could
use it to playtest a proposed level layout, before implementing
it in the game’s level editing tools. If you add enemy monsters
and play as a cooperative team, and you add limited ammunition and health as new mechanics, you could balance the
number of monsters versus the amount of ammo and health on
a level to get a pretty decent first stab at a level that would provide a desired level of challenge. If you add different weapon
types with varying range, damage and accuracy, you could
get a pretty good idea of which weapons would be the most
powerful on a given map. You would still need to revisit these
things if you turn it into a digital game, because things do
not transition 100% perfectly from one medium to another…
but you will have a better starting point, and a better understanding of the game’s mechanics and how they are likely to
And maybe even if the digital game fails, you’ll still at least
have a fun little tabletop game to play with your friends.
I hope this example serves to show you that most video games
can have at least some of their elements prototyped in paper.
And naturally, games that are meant to be released in nondigital form can be prototyped that way as well. Even some
systems from tabletop RPGs and LARPs can be prototyped in
this way, in their early stages.
common ways to get you started:
Subdivide into a grid of squares. Square grids are easy to
navigate and are familiar to most players, so they will not
intimidate casual players as much as some other methods.
For grids that include lots of obstacles and movement
challenges, grids are ideal because it is easy to block off a
path: a single impassable square forces you to go quite a
bit out of your way to get to the other side. The drawback
of squares is that you inevitably run into a problem with
diagonal movement: does it count as one space or two
in order to move diagonally? One space feels too fast;
two spaces feels too slow. (The actual value is the square
root of 2, or about 1.4 spaces… but if you’re dealing with
whole-number values this obviously does not work.)
Subdivide into a grid of hexes. Hexes have some nice
mathematical properties to them, in that something that is
3 hexes away is always that many hexes, no matter which
of several paths you take; this gets around the “how fast
to move along a diagonal” problem of square grids. On
the down side, hex boards make it much easier to move
around obstacles, so movement is a lot less constrained.
This may be desireable or not, depending on the nature of
your game. Also, hexes are quite “geeky” and are likely
to put off players who are not that experienced with this
style of play.
Open area, no board. Use a tape measure instead,
and move your pieces a certain number of inches (or
centimetres, or what have you) per turn. This gives the
most fluid and precise movement, although it has many
of the same disadvantages as hex maps, and is also
vulnerable to someone accidentally bumping the table
and sending pieces slightly off of where they were.
A Short Note about Grids
Adding Features versus Keeping It
There are many ways to make a game board, but here are three
As mentioned earlier, our First-Person Shooter prototype is
just begging for extra features, such as health and ammo. Why
not start with all of these extra systems already in place, as
opposed to starting with just the simple core system? There
are a few reasons to start with a simple, core rule set and then
add on one rule at a time, instead of trying to design the entire
game in one big effort:
If the basic, core rules don’t work, then adding extra rules
on top of it will generally not make it work. Get the basics
working first, before you start adding complexity.
In fact, if you build extra rules on an unstable foundation,
the real underlying problems in your design could be
obscured! Something might seem wrong, but if there are
a lot of systems and resources and game objects it can be
hard to tell if you’re experiencing a problem with the core
mechanics, or the balance of a particular resource, or the
design of the map, or something else.
Early on in a design process, it’s generally better to keep
things as simple as possible. For every rule or mechanic or
object or resource that you want to include, ask yourself: is
this really necessary right now? At this point, let your laziness
override your creativity. It is far easier to add something to
your design than to take it away, so add the minimum possible
to have a working, playable game.
If you have trouble with this, try writing down a list of all of
the ideas you have that you want to include in the game, and
then cross off as many as you can. Ask if whatever items are
left on your list would make a complete, playable game. If so,
try to cross off more, until you absolutely can’t anymore.
It may also help to run your idea by another designer who
is not personally and emotionally attached to your pet idea.
Invite them to be merciless in deciding which of your rules
can be trashed. For the purposes of this course, you can offer
a trade with any colleagues in your area: you look at my prototype, I’ll look at yours!
Moving Forward
Once you have the core gameplay, and it works, then you
can add new features. The temptation at this point is to add
everything you originally thought of. Resist this temptation.
Instead, add one new feature, and playtest again until the new
feature works, or you have decided that it doesn’t work and it
needs to be abandoned.
Why not add everything at once? Because every new thing
you add may have some problems with it. If you only add one
new rule and a critical game system becomes broken in playtesting, you know exactly where the problem is, because you
only changed one thing. If you add ten new rules and something breaks, it’s harder to isolate which rule (or combination
of rules) caused the problem. Incidentally, this part is similar
to programming: if you write code in small chunks and then
unit test, it’s easier to find bugs than if you write ten thousand
lines of code between tests.
Yes, this is tedious. You have to playtest, then change one rule,
then playtest again, then change another rule, and keep doing
this dozens (or even hundreds) of times. The first few playtests are fun, but you will quickly become sick of the whole
business. This is part of the process of design. Sometimes,
game design is hard work that is not particularly fun. This is
something you need to accept if you have aspirations to become a professional designer. Just remember that the purpose
of this is to make a game that is fun, and if it’s not there yet,
that should be your incentive to change something and playtest again until you reach your goal.
In making an actual game, the next step after the physical prototype (once you’re happy with it) is to document it. These
documents do not have to be 500-page Game Design Bibles.
They can be small sets of rules and design and playtest notes
that you’ve accumulated as you went through the iterative
process, but formatted into something that is readable and understandable by someone who has not seen the project before.
This documentation will be valuable reference material for
later, if you ever forget what you were doing. Sometimes you
have to put an idea to the side for a few months and return to
it later, and I guarantee you will forget all of those details that
used to seem second-nature to you when you were fiddling
with the rules early on.
There are some additional readings this week:
Challenges for Game Designers, Chapter 4. This details
the process of prototyping a video game in paper. Even
if your interest is in board game design, note that many
commercially-successful board games originated in the
video game world (there are, for example, board-game
versions of DOOM, Warcraft 3, Civilization, Age of
Empires, and World of Warcraft, among many others).
Some of them are even worth playing.
Don’t be a Vidiot (
vidiot.html) by Greg Costikyan. If you want to
be a video game designer, this article provides both
an incentive to study board games, and also a starting
point for the kinds of games that are out there beyond
Monopoly and RISK.
Level 4 - Homeplay
Do Challenge 4-1 in the text. It cannot be a game that already
has a commercially-available board game adaptation. (Check
BoardGameGeek at http://www.boardgamegeek.
com/ if in doubt.)
Design a board-game adaptation of any video
game. Post your complete rule set on the forums.
Include a list of all components necessary to play.
This game should be playable without the player
having to design anything!
As above, and once you’ve finished your design,
make a playable prototype of the core systems in
under an hour. On the forum, give a complete list
of materials used.
As above, and the video game in question must be
an adaptation of an Atari 2600 title. And make it
more fun than the original!
I would ask this time that you stay within your experience
level. For example, if you have no game design experience
prior to this course, do the basic challenge, even if you are
capable of doing the others, and post in the Green Circle forum. You can certainly tackle the more advanced constraints
on your own, but I’d like to try it this way to see if you get
superior peer feedback. Thank you for cooperating.
Make a post on the forums. Then, as with last time, find at
least two peers at the same difficulty level, and (if you are
Blue Square or Black Diamond) three people at the next lower
difficulty level, and offer constructive feedback.
Here’s another quick thing you can try if you get through all of
that. Propose a rule change to Battleship that will make it better than the original, and find a way to express it in less than
135 characters. Post to Twitter with the #GDCU tag.
Additional Resources
While not required reading, I can recommend these two articles for their relevance to today’s topic:
Veteran designer Raph Koster provides his own list of
game bits that work well for prototypes at http://
An article on paper prototyping, written for an audience
of video game developers, available at http://
Battleship Changes
I compiled a list of tweets for the last challenge (add or change
a rule to Battleship to make it more interesting):
Level 5:
Mechanics and Dynamics
Originally posted July 13, 2009
”Reveal” was a common theme (such as, instead of firing
a shot, give the number of Hits in a 3×3 square – thus
turning the game from “what number am I thinking of”
into “two-player competitive Minesweeper”)
Skip a few turns for a larger shot (for example, skip 5
turns to hit everything in an entire 3×3 area). The original
suggestion was an even number (skip 9 turns to nuke a
3×3 square) but note that there isn’t much of a functional
difference between this and just taking one shot at a time.
Like Go, if you enclose an area with a series of shots, all
squares in the enclosed area are immediately hit as well
(this adds an element of risk-taking and short-term versus
long-term tradeoffs to the game – do you try to block off a
large area that takes many turns but has an efficient turnto-squares-hit ratio, or do you concentrate on smaller
areas that give you more immediate information but at
the cost of taking longer in aggregate?)
When you miss but are in a square adjacent to an enemy
ship, the opponent must declare it as a “near miss”
(without telling you what direction the ship is in), which
doesn’t exactly get around the guessing-game aspect of
the original but should at least speed play by giving added
information. Alternatively, with any miss, the opponent
must give the distance in squares to the nearest ship
(without specifying direction), which would allow for
some deductive reasoning.
Skip (7-X) turns to rebuild a destroyed ship of size X. If
the area in which you are building is hit in the meantime,
the rebuild is canceled. (The original suggestion was skip
X turns to rebuild a ship of size X, but smaller ships are
actually more dangerous since they are harder to locate,
so I would suggest an inverse relationship between size
ntil this point, we have made lots of games
and game rules, but at no point have we
examined what makes a good rule from a bad one.
Nor have we really examined the different kinds
of rules that form a game designer’s palette. Nor
have we talked about the relationship between the
game rules and the player experience. These are
the things we examine today.
and cost.)
Each time you sink an enemy ship, you can rebuild a ship
of yours of the same size that was already sunk (this gives
some back-and-forth, and suggests alternate strategies of
scattering your early shots to give your opponent less
room to rebuild)
Once per game, your Battleship (the size-4 ship) can hit
a 5-square cross (+) shaped area in a single turn; using
this also forces you to place a Hit on your own Battleship
(note that this would also give away your Battleship’s
location, so it seems more like a retaliatory move when
your Battleship is almost sunk anyway)
We will revisit some of these when we talk about the kinds
of decisions that are made in a game when we’ve made it to
Level 7.
For this Level, I’m trying something new and putting one of
the readings up front, because I want you to look at this first,
before reading the rest of this post.
MDA Framework (at http://www.
pdf) by LeBlanc, Hunicke and Zabek. This is one of
the few academic papers that achieved wide exposure
within the game industry (it probably helps that the
authors are experienced game designers). There are two
parts of this paper that made it really influential. The
first is the Mechanics/Dynamics/Aesthetics (MDA)
conceptualization, which offers a way to think about the
relationship of rules to player experience, and also the
relationship between player and designer. The second
part to pay attention to is the “8 kinds of fun” which we
will return to a bit later in the course (Level 8).
Now, About That MDA Framework
LeBlanc et al. define a game in terms of its Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics:
Mechanics are a synonym for the “rules” of the game.
These are the constraints under which the game operates.
How is the game set up? What actions can players take,
and what effects do those actions have on the game
state? When does the game end, and how is a resolution
determined? These are defined by the mechanics.
Dynamics describe the play of the game when the rules
are set in motion. What strategies emerge from the rules?
How do players interact with one another?
Aesthetics (in the MDA sense) do not refer to the visual
elements of the game, but rather the player experience
of the game: the effect that the dynamics have on the
players themselves. Is the game “fun”? Is play frustrating,
or boring, or interesting? Is the play emotionally or
intellectually engaging?
Before the MDA Framework was written, the terms “mechanics” and “dynamics” were already in common use among designers. The term “aesthetics” in this sense had not, but has
gained more use in recent years.
The Process of Design
With the definitions out of the way, why is this important?
This is one of the key points of the MDA paper. The game
designer only creates the Mechanics directly. The Dynamics
emerge from the Mechanics, and the Aesthetics arise out of
the Dynamics. The game designer may want to design the
play experience, or at least that may be the ultimate goal the
designer has in mind… but as designers, we are stuck building
the rules of the game and hoping that the desired experience
emerges from our rules.
This is why game design is sometimes referred to as a secondorder design problem: because we do not define the solution,
we define something that creates something else that creates
the solution. This is why game design is hard. Or at least, it
is one reason. Design is not just a matter of coming up with
a “Great Idea” for a game; it is about coming up with a set
of rules that will implement that idea, when two-thirds of the
final product (the Dynamics and Aesthetics) are not under our
direct control.
The Process of Play
Designers start with the Mechanics and follow them as they
grow outward into the Aesthetics. You can think of a game
as a sphere, with the Mechanics at the core, the Dynamics
surrounding them, and the Aesthetics on the surface, each
layer growing out of the one inside it. One thing the authors of
MDA point out is that this is not how games are experienced
from the player’s point of view.
A player sees the surface first – the Aesthetics. They may be
aware of the Mechanics and Dynamics, but the thing that really makes an immediate impression and that is most easily
understood is the Aesthetics. This is why, even with absolutely no knowledge or training in game design, anyone can play a
game and tell you whether or not they are having a good time.
They may not be able to articulate why they are having a good
time or what makes the game “good” or “bad”… but anyone
can tell you right away how a game makes them feel.
If a player spends enough time with a game, they may learn
to appreciate the Dynamics of the game and now their experience arises from them. They may realize that they do or don’t
like a game because of the specific kinds of interactions they
are having with the game and/or the other players. And if a
player spends even more time with that game, they may eventually have a strong enough grasp of the Mechanics to see how
the Dynamics are emerging from them.
If a game is a sphere that is designed from the inside out, it
is played from the outside in. And this, I think, is one of the
key points of MDA. The designer creates the Mechanics and
everything flows outward from that. The player experiences
the Aesthetics and then their experience flows inward. As designers, we must be aware of both of these ways of interacting
with a game. Otherwise, we are liable to create games that are
fun for designers but not players.
One Example of MDA in action
I mentioned the concept of “spawn camping” earlier in this
course, as an example of how players with different implicit rule sets can throw around accusations of “cheating” for
something that is technically allowed by the rules of the game.
Let us analyze this in the context of MDA.
In a First-Person Shooter video game, a common mechanic is
for players to have “spawn points” – dedicated places on the
map where they re-appear after getting killed. Spawn points
are a mechanic. This leads to the dynamic where a player
may sit next to a spawn point and immediately kill anyone as
soon as they respawn. And lastly, the aesthetics would likely
be frustration at the prospect of coming back into play only to
be killed again immediately.
Suppose you are designing a new FPS and you notice this
frustration aesthetic in your game, and you want to fix this so
that the game is not as frustrating. You cannot simply change
the aesthetics of the game to “make it more fun” – this may
be your goal, but it is not something under your direct control.
You cannot even change the dynamics of spawn camping directly; you cannot tell the players how to interact with your
game, except through the mechanics. So instead, you must
change the mechanics of the game – maybe you try making
players respawn in random locations rather than designated
areas – and then you hope that the desired aesthetics emerge
from your mechanics change.
How do you know if your change worked? Playtest, of course!
How do you know what change to make, if the effects of mechanics changes are so unpredictable? We will get into some
basic tips and tricks near the end of this course. For now, the
most obvious way is designer intuition. The more you practice, the more you design games, the more you make rules
changes and then playtest and see the effects of your changes,
the better you will get at making the right changes when you
notice problems… and occasionally, even creating the right
mechanics in the first place. There are few substitutes for experience… which, incidentally, is why so much of this course
involves getting you off your butt and making games!
“If the computer or the game designer is having more fun
than the player, you have made a terrible mistake.”
This seems as good a time as any to quote game designer Sid
Meier. His warning is clearly directed at video game designers, but applies just as easily to non-digital projects. It is a
reminder that we design the Mechanics of the game, and designing the Mechanics is fun for us. But it is not the Mechanics that are fun for our players. A common design mistake is
to create rules that are fun to create, but that do not necessarily
translate into fun gameplay. Always remember that you are
creating games for the players and not yourself.
Mechanics, Dynamics and Complexity
Generally, adding additional mechanics, new systems, additional game objects, and new ways for objects to interact with
one another (or for players to interact with the game) will lead
to a greater complexity in the dynamics of the game. For example, compare Chess and Checkers. Chess has six kinds of
pieces (instead of two) and a greater number of actions that
each piece can take, so it ends up having more strategic depth.
Is more complexity good, or bad? It depends. Tetris is a very
simple but still very successful game. Advanced Squad Leader is an incredibly complex game, but still can be considered
successful for what it is. Some games are so simple that they
are not fun beyond a certain age, like Tic-Tac-Toe. Other
games are too complex for their own good, and would be better if their systems were a bit more simplified and streamlined
(I happen to think this about the board game Agricola; I’m
sure you can provide examples from your own experience).
Do more complex mechanics always lead to more complex
dynamics? No – there are some cases where very simple mechanics create extreme complexity (as is the case with Chess).
And there are other cases where the mechanics are extremely
complicated, but the dynamics are simple (imagine a modified
version of the children’s card game War that did not just involve comparison of numbers, but lookups on complex “combat resolution” charts). The best way to gauge complexity, as
you may have guessed, is to play the game.
Feedback Loops
One kind of dynamic that is often seen in games and deserves
special attention is known as the feedback loop. There are
two types, positive feedback loops and negative feedback
loops. These terms are borrowed from other fields such as
control systems and biology, and they mean the same thing in
games that they mean elsewhere.
A positive feedback loop can be thought of as a reinforcing
relationship. Something happens that causes the same thing
to happen again, which causes it to happen yet again, getting
stronger in each iteration – like a snowball that starts out small
at the top of the hill and gets larger and faster as it rolls and
collects more snow.
As an example, there is a relatively obscure shooting game
for the NES called The Guardian Legend. Once you beat the
game, you got access to a special extra gameplay mode. In this
mode, you got rewarded with power-ups at the end of each
level based on your score: the higher your score, the more
power-ups you got for the next level. This is a positive feedback loop: if you get a high score, it gives you more powerups, which make it easier to get an even higher score in the
next level, which gives you even more power-ups, and so on.
Note that in this case, the reverse is also true. Suppose you get
a low score. Then you get fewer power-ups at the end of that
level, which makes it harder for you to do well on the next
level, which means you will probably get an even lower score,
and so on until you are so far behind that it is nearly impossible for you to proceed at all.
The thing that is often confusing to people is that both of these
scenarios are positive feedback loops. This seems counterintuitive; the second example seems very “negative,” as the player
is doing poorly and getting fewer rewards. It is “positive” in
the sense that the effects get stronger in magnitude on each
There are three properties of positive feedback loops that
game designers should be aware of:
1. They tend to destabilize the game, as one player gets
further and further ahead (or behind).
2. They cause the game to end faster.
3. The put emphasis on the early game, since the effects of
early-game decisions are magnified over time.
Feedback loops usually have two steps (as in my The Guardian Legend example) but they can have more. For example,
some Real-Time Strategy games have a positive feedback loop
with four steps: players explore the map, which gives them access to more resources, which let them buy better technology,
which let them build better units, which let them explore more
effectively (which gives them access to more resources… and
the cycle repeats). As such, detecting a positive feedback loop
is not always easy.
Here are some other examples of positive feedback loops that
you might be familiar with:
Most “4X” games, such as the Civilization and Master of
Orion series, are usually built around positive feedback
loops. As you grow your civilization, it lets you generate
resources faster, which let you grow faster. By the time
you begin conflict in earnest with your opponents, one
player is usually so far ahead that it is not much of a
contest, because the core positive feedback loop driving
the game means that someone who got ahead of the curve
early on is going to be much farther ahead in the late
Board games that feature building up as their primary
mechanic, such as Settlers of Catan. In these games,
players use resources to improve their resource
production, which gets them more resources.
The physical sport Rugby has a minor positive feedback
loop: when a team scores points, they start with the ball
again, which makes it slightly more likely that they will
score again. The advantage is thus given to the team
who just gained an advantage. This is in contrast to most
sports, which give the ball to the opposing team after a
successful score.
Negative feedback loops are, predictably, the opposite of
positive feedback loops in just about every way. A negative
feedback loop is a balancing relationship. When something
happens in the game (such as one player gaining an advantage
over the others), a negative feedback loop makes it harder for
that same thing to happen again. If one player gets in the lead,
a negative feedback loop makes it easier for the opponents to
catch up (and harder for a winning player to extend their lead).
As an example, consider a “Kart-style” racing game like Mario Kart. In racing games, play is more interesting if the player
is in the middle of a pack of cars rather than if they are way
out in front or lagging way behind on their own (after all, there
is more interaction if your opponents are close by). As a result,
the de facto standard in that genre of play is to add a negative
feedback loop: as the player gets ahead of the pack, the opponents start cheating, finding better power-ups and getting impossible bursts of speed to help them catch up. This makes it
more difficult for the player to maintain or extend a lead. This
particular feedback loop is sometimes referred to as “rubberbanding” because the cars behave as if they are connected by
rubber bands, pulling the leaders and losers back to the center
of the pack.
Likewise, the reverse is true. If the player falls behind, they
will find better power-ups and the opponents will slow down
to allow the player to catch up. This makes it more difficult
for a player who is behind to fall further behind. Again, both
of these are examples of negative feedback loops; “negative”
refers to the fact that a dynamic becomes weaker with iteration, and has nothing to do with whether it has a positive or
negative effect on the player’s standing in the game.
Negative feedback loops also have three important properties:
1. They tend to stabilize the game, causing players to tend
towards the center of the pack.
2. They cause the game to take longer.
3. They put emphasis on the late game, since early-game
decisions are reduced in their impact over time.
Some examples of negative feedback loops:
Most physical sports like Football and Basketball, where
after your team scores, the ball is given to the opposing
team and they are then given a chance to score. This
makes it less likely that a single team will keep scoring
over and over.
The board game Starfarers of Catan has a negative
feedback loop where every player with less than a certain
number of victory points gets a free resource at the start
of their turn. Early on, this affects all players and speeds
up the early game. Later in the game, as some players get
ahead and cross the victory point threshold, the players
lagging behind continue to get bonus resources. This
makes it easier for the trailing players to catch up.
My grandfather was a decent Chess player, generally
better than his children who he taught to play. To make it
more of a challenge, he invented a rule: if he won a game,
next time they played, his opponent could remove a piece
of his from the board at the start of the game (first a pawn,
then two pawns, then a knight or bishop, and so on as
the child continued to lose). Each time my grandfather
won, the next game would be more challenging for him,
making it more likely that he would eventually start
Use of Feedback Loops
Are feedback loops good or bad? Should we strive to include
them, or are they to be avoided? As with most aspects of game
design, it depends on the situation. Sometimes, a designer will
deliberately add mechanics that cause a feedback loop. Other
times, a feedback loop is discovered during play and the designer must decide what (if anything) to do about it.
Positive feedback loops can be quite useful. They end the
game quickly when a player starts to emerge as the winner,
without having the end game be a long, drawn-out affair. On
the other hand, positive feedback loops can be frustrating for
players who are trying to catch up to the leader and start feeling like they no longer have a chance.
Negative feedback loops can also be useful, for example to
prevent a dominant early strategy and to keep players feeling
like they always have a chance to win. On the other hand,
they can also be frustrating, as players who do well early on
can feel like they are being punished for succeeding, while
also feeling like the players who lag behind are seemingly rewarded for doing poorly.
What makes a particular feedback loop “good” or “bad” from
a player perspective? This is debatable, but I think it is largely
a matter of player perception of fairness. If it feels like the
game is artificially intervening to help a player win when they
don’t deserve it, it can be perceived negatively by players.
How do you know how players will perceive the game? Playtest, of course.
Eliminating Feedback Loops
Suppose you identify a feedback loop in your game and you
want to remove it. How do you do this? There are two ways.
The first is to shut off the feedback loop itself. All feedback
loops (positive and negative) have three components:
A “sensor” that monitors the game state;
A “comparator” that decides whether to take action based
on the value monitored by the sensor;
An “activator” that modifies the game state when the
comparator decides to do so.
For example, in the earlier kart-racing negative feedback loop
example, the “sensor” is how far ahead or behind the player is,
relative to the rest of the pack; the “comparator” checks to see
if the player is farther ahead or behind than a certain threshold
value; and the “activator” causes the opposing cars to either
speed up or slow down accordingly, if the player is too far
ahead or behind. All of these may form a single mechanic (“If
the player is more than 300 meters ahead of all opponents,
multiply everyone else’s speed by 150%”). In other cases
there may be three or more separate mechanics that cause the
feedback loop, and changing any one of them will modify the
nature of the loop.
By being aware of the mechanics causing a feedback loop,
you can disrupt the effects by either removing the sensor,
changing or removing the comparator, or modifying or removing the effect of the activator. Going back to our The
Guardian Legend example (more points = more power-ups
for the next level), you could deactivate the positive feedback
loop by either modifying the sensor (measure something other
than score… something that does not increase in proportion
to how powered-up the player is), or changing the comparator
(by changing the scores required so that later power-ups cost
more and more, you can guarantee that even the best players
will fall behind the curve eventually, leading to a more difficult end game), or changing the activator (maybe the player
gets power-ups through a different method entirely, such as
getting a specific set of power-ups at the end of each level, or
finding them in the middle of levels).
If you do not want to remove the feedback loop from the game
but you do want to reduce its effects, an alternative is to add
another feedback loop of the opposing type. Again returning
to the kart-racing example, if you wanted to keep the “rubberbanding” negative feedback loop, you could add a positive
feedback loop to counteract it. For example, if the opposing
cars get speed boosts when the player is ahead, perhaps the
player can go faster as well, leading to a case where being
in the lead makes the entire race go faster (but not giving an
advantage or disadvantage to anyone). Or maybe the player in
the lead can find better power-ups to compensate for the opponents’ new speed advantage.
Another dynamic that game designers should be aware of is
called emergent gameplay (or emergent complexity, or simply emergence). I’ve found this is a difficult thing to describe
in my classroom courses, so I would welcome other perspectives on how to teach it. Generally, emergence describes a
game with simple mechanics but complex dynamics. “Emergent complexity” can be used to describe any system of this
nature, even things that are not games.
Some examples of emergence from the world outside of
In nature, insect colonies (such as ants and bees) show
behavior that is so complex, it appears to be intelligent
enough that we call it a “hive mind” (much to the
exploitation of many sci-fi authors). In reality, each
individual insect is following its own very simple set of
rules, and it is only in aggregate that the colony displays
complex behaviors.
Conway’s Game of Life, though not actually a “game”
by most of the definitions in this course, is a simple set
of sequential rules for simulating cellular life on a square
grid. Each cell is either “alive” or “dead” on the current
turn. To progress to the next turn, all living cells that are
adjacent to either zero or one other living cells are killed
(from isolation), and living cells adjacent to four or more
other living cells are also killed (from overcrowding);
all dead cells adjacent to exactly three living cells are
“born” and changed to living cells on the next turn; and
any cell adjacent to exactly two living cells stays exactly
as it is. Those are the only rules. You start with an initial
setup of your choice, and then modify the board to see
what happens. And yet, you can get incredibly complex
behaviors: structures can move, mutate, spawn new
structures, and any number of other things.
Boid’s Algorithm, a way to simulate crowd and flocking
behavior that is used in some CG-based movies as well as
games. There are only three simple rules that individuals
in a flock must each follow. First, if there are a lot of
your companions on one side of you and few on the other,
it means you’re probably at the edge of the flock; move
towards your companions. Second, if you are close to
your companions, give them room so you don’t crowd
them. Third, adjust your speed and direction to be the
average of your nearby companions. From these three
rules you can get some pretty complex, detailed and
realistic crowd behavior.
Here are some examples of emergent gameplay:
In fighting games like the Street Fighter or Tekken series,
“combos” arise from the collision of several simple rules:
connecting with certain attacks momentarily stuns the
opponent so that they cannot respond, and other attacks
can be executed quickly enough to connect before the
opponent recovers. Designers may or may not intentionally
put combos in their games (the earliest examples were
not intended, and indeed were not discovered until the
games had been out for awhile), but it is the mechanics
of stunning and attack speed that create complex series
of moves that are unblockable after the first move in the
series connects.
In the sport of Basketball, the concept of “dribbling”
was not explicitly part of the rules. As originally written,
the designer had intended the game to be similar to how
Ultimate Frisbee is played: the player with the ball is not
allowed to move, and must either throw the ball towards
the basket (in an attempt to score), or “pass” the ball to a
teammate (either through the air, or by bouncing it on the
ground). There was simply no rule that prevented a player
from passing to himself.
Book openings in Chess. The rules of this game are pretty
simple, with only six different piece types and a handful
of special-case moves, but a set of common opening
moves has emerged from repeated play.
Why do we care about emergent dynamics? It is often desired
for practical reasons, especially in the video game world, because you can get a lot of varied and deep gameplay out of
relatively simple mechanics. In video games (and to a lesser
extent, board games) it is the mechanics that must be implemented. If you are programming a video game, emergent
gameplay gives you a great ratio of hours-of-gameplay to
lines-of-code. Because of this apparent cost savings, “emergence” as a buzzword was all the rage a few years ago, and I
still hear it mentioned from time to time.
It’s important to note that emergence is not always planned
for, and for that matter it is not always desirable. Here are
two examples of emergence, both from the Grand Theft Auto
series of games, where unintended emergent gameplay led to
questionable results:
Consider these two rules. First, running over a pedestrian
in a vehicle causes them to drop the money they are
carrying. Second, hiring a prostitute refills the player’s
health, but costs the player money. From these two
unrelated rules, we get the emergent strategy that has
been affectionately termed the “hooker exploit”: sleep
with a prostitute, then run her over to regain the money
you spent. This caused a bit of a scandal in the press back
in the day, from people who interpreted this dynamic as
an intentional design that glorified violence against sex
workers. Simply saying “it’s emergent gameplay!” is
not sufficient to explain to a layperson why this was not
Perhaps more amusing was the combination of two other
rules. First, if the player causes damage to an innocent
bystander, the person will (understandably) defend
themselves by attacking the player. Second, if a vehicle
has taken sufficient damage, it will eventually explode,
damaging everything in the vicinity (and of course, nearly
killing the driver). These led to the following highly
unrealistic scenario: a player, driving a damaged vehicle,
crashes near a group of bystanders. The car explodes. The
player crawls from the wreckage, barely alive… until the
nearby crowd of “Samaritans” decides that the player
damaged them from the explosion, and they descend in a
group to finish the player off!
As you can see, emergence is not always a good thing. More
to the point, it is not necessarily cheaper to develop a game
with emergent properties. Because of the complex nature of
the dynamics, emergent games require a lot more playtesting
and iteration than games that are more straightforward in their
relationships between mechanics and dynamics. A game with
emergence may be easier to program, but it is much harder to
design; there is no cost savings, but rather a shift in cost from
programmers to game designers.
From Emergence to Intentionality
Player intentionality, the concept from Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools mentioned earlier in this course, is related
in some ways to emergence. Generally, you get emergence by
having lots of small, simple, interconnected systems. If the
player is able to figure out these systems and use them to form
complicated chains of events intentionally, that is one way to
have a higher degree of player intention.
Another Reading
Designing to Promote Intentional Play (at http://
Clint Hocking. This was a lecture given live at GDC in
2006, but Clint has kindly made his Powerpoint slides
and speaker notes publicly available for download from
his blog. It covers the concept of player intentionality and
its relation to emergence, far better than I can cover here.
The link goes to a Zip file that contains a number of files
inside it; start with the Powerpoint and the companion
Word doc, and the presentation will make it clear when
the other things like the videos come into play. I will warn
you that, like many video game developers, Clint tends to
use a lot of profanity; also, the presentation opens with a
joke about Jesus and Moses. It may be best to skip this
one if you are around people who are easily offended by
such things.
Lessons Learned
The most important takeaway from today is that game design
is not a trivial task. It is difficult, mainly because of the nature of MDA. The designer creates rules, which create play,
which create the player experience. Every rule created has a
doubly-indirect effect on the player, and this is hard to predict
and control. This also explains why making one small rules
change in a game can have ripple effects that drastically alter
how the game is played. And yet, a designer’s task is to create
a favorable player experience.
This is why playtesting is so important. It is the most effective way to gauge the effects of rules changes when you are
Today we will practice iterating on an existing design, rather
than starting from scratch. I want you to see first-hand the effects on a game when you change the mechanics.
Here are the rules for a simplified variant of the dice game
called Bluff (also called Liar’s Dice, but known to most people as “that weird dice game that they played in the second
Pirates of the Caribbean movie”):
Players: 2 or more, best with a small group of 4 to 6.
Objective: Be the last player with any dice remaining.
Setup: All players take 5 six-sided dice. It may also help
if each player has something to hide their dice with, such
as an opaque cup, but players may just shield their dice
with their own hands. All players roll their dice, in such
a way that each player can see their own dice but no one
else’s. Choose a player to go first. That player must make
a bid:
they are eliminated from the game. When all players
(except one) have lost all of their dice, the one player
remaining is the winner.
Bids: A “bid” is a player’s guess as to how many dice are
showing a certain face, among all players. Dice showing
the number 1 are “wild” and count as all other numbers.
You cannot bid any number of 1s, only 2s through 6s.
For example, “three 4s” would mean that between every
player’s dice, there are at least three dice showing the
number 1 or 4.
If you don’t have enough dice to play this game, you can use
a variant: dealing cards from a deck, for example, or drawing
slips of paper numbered 1 through 6 out of a container with
many such slips of paper thrown in.
Increasing a bid: To raise a bid, the new bid must be
higher than the previous. Increasing the number of dice
is always a higher bid, regardless of rank (nine 2s is a
higher bid than eight 6s). Increasing the rank is a higher
bid if the number of dice is the same or higher (eight 6s is
a higher bid than eight 5s, both of which are higher than
eight 4s).
Progression of Play: On a player’s turn, that player may
either raise the current bid, or if they think the most
recent bid is incorrect, they can challenge the previous
bid. If they raise the bid, play passes to the next player in
clockwise order. If they challenge, the current round ends;
all players reveal their dice, and the result is resolved.
Resolution of a round: If a bid is challenged but found
to be correct (for example, if the bid was “nine 5s” and
there are actually eleven 1s and 5s among all players, so
there were indeed at least nine of them), the player who
challenged the bid loses one of their dice. On subsequent
rounds, that player will then have fewer dice to roll. If the
bid is challenged correctly (suppose on that bid of “nine
5s” there were actually only eight 1s and 5s among all
players), the player who made the incorrect bid loses one
of their dice instead. Then, all players re-roll all of their
remaining dice, and play continues with a new opening
bid, starting with the player who won the previous
Game resolution: When a player has lost all of their dice,
If you don’t have any friends, spend some time finding them.
It will make it much easier for you to playtest your projects
later in this course if you have people who are willing to play
games with you.
At any rate, your first “assignment” here is to play the game.
Take particular note of the dynamics and how they emerge
from the mechanics. Do you see players bluffing, calling unrealistically high numbers in an effort to convince their opponents that they have more of a certain number than they
actually do? Are players hesitant to challenge, knowing that
any challenge is a risk and it is therefore safer to not challenge
as long as you are not challenged yourself? Do any players
calculate the odds, and use that information to influence their
bid? Do you notice any feedback loops in the game as play
progresses – that is, as a player starts making mistakes and
losing dice, are they more or less likely to lose again in future
rounds, given that they receive fewer dice and therefore have
less information to bid on?
Okay, that last question kind of gave it away – yes, there is a
positive feedback loop in this game. The effect is small, and
noticeable mostly in an end-game situation where one player
has three or more dice and their one or two remaining opponents only have a single die. Still, this gives us an opportunity
to fiddle with things as designers.
Your next step is to add, remove, or change one rule in order to remove the effect of the positive feedback loop. Why
did you choose the particular change that you did? What do
you expect will happen – how will the dynamics change in
response to your modified mechanic? Write down your prediction.
Then, play the game again with your rules modification. Did
it work? Did it have any other side effects that you didn’t anticipate? How did the dynamics actually change? Be honest,
and don’t be afraid if your prediction wasn’t accurate. The
whole point of this is so you can see for yourself how hard it
is to predict gameplay changes from a simple rules change,
without actually playing.
Next, share what you learned with the community. I have
created a new page on the course Wiki (at
On that page, write the following:
What was your rules change?
How did you expect the dynamics of the game to change?
How did they really change?
You don’t need to include much detail; a sentence or two for
each of the three points is fine.
Finally, your last assignment (this is mandatory!) is to read at
least three other responses. Read the rules change first, and
without reading further, ask yourself how you think that rule
change would modify gameplay. Then read the other person’s
prediction, and see if it matches yours. Lastly, read what actually happened, and see how close you were.
You may leave your name, or you may post anonymously.
Take your favorite physical sport. Identify a positive or negative feedback loop in the game. Most sports have at least one
of these. Propose a rule change that would eliminate it. Find a
way to express it in less than 135 characters, and post to Twitter with the #GDCU tag. You have until Thursday. One sport
per participant, please!
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